The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families – Part 3 of 3

Jun 21, 2022 | Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity, General Estate Planning, Podcasts

“The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families” is a three-part special:

  • Overview: An introduction and overview to lecture. – posted May 31, 2022
  • Part 1:  “Coaching Up” – posted June 7, 2022
  • Part 2:  Nourishing Family Values – posted June 14, 2022
  • Part 3:  Challenges of the Counselor – posted June 21, 2022

“The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families,” that’s the subject of today’s ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk.

This is Steve Akers, ACTEC Fellow from Dallas, Texas. Welcome to the conclusion of a special lecture, ACTEC’s Annual Trachtman Lecture, featuring Past President Ronald D. Aucutt. In the last podcast, Ron began sharing the challenges that trust and estate counselors face. Today, he will continue to share his wisdom and offer some closing thoughts for us as counselors.

Challenge 4: Defining the “Family”

Now the fourth challenge – perhaps the most fundamental of all – is how to define the “family” in the first place. Remember Hugh Magill’s Trachtman Lecture in 2018 – “It’s All in the Family… What’s a Family?” No one could explore the recent development of the contemporary family more thoroughly and meaningfully than Hugh did in his lecture and in the associated ACTEC Law Journal article. But, against that background, it is important to define the scope of the family legacy initiatives that are my focus today. For example, as I mentioned earlier, it was pretty clear to me 11 years ago that spouses of family members (including “significant others” situated similarly to spouses) should ordinarily be included in discussions of family legacy, because they are so influential in the life of the family member. I still believe that as a general rule. Meanwhile, children should be introduced at an appropriate age. That age, like all the other details like that, will be determined by each family to suit their own circumstances. The one thing that is paramount in every case: clarity and consistency.

Challenge 5: Determining How Long It Should Last

That leads to the fifth challenge – maybe even more important because it is not always thought about – and that is determining how long the legacy framework should last. “Forever” is a natural and appealing answer. But think about it. Do any of us have any experience observing “forever?” I have known members of six generations of my family, If each family member has on average, say, three children, by the sixth generation there will be 243 fourth cousins! If each family member has on average four children, that number will be over a thousand. The family will look like a public corporation! Does anyone even know their third cousins?  But in the context of a family values system, we must assume and allow for the details of the values system to be refined and updated over time anyway. And family governance mechanism should be flexible and adaptable. And divisions of the family for this purpose will make as much sense as they do in the context of trusts for example – a per stirpes, so to speak – maybe not every generation, but very likely more often than every six generations in most cases.

Challenge 6: Accommodating the Family That May Not Have a Legacy

The sixth challenge arises with clients who have not received a values legacy – or, maybe more accurately, do not feel as if they have received a values legacy. Maybe they do not have any memories – or at least not fond memories – of their parents or grandparents. Maybe they never knew their parents – or really knew them. Maybe their parents just didn’t share with them at the level I’m talking about. Not necessarily because of the lack of love,  perhaps no one ever told them, and it never occurred to them, that a legacy of values could be developed and transmitted apart from a legacy of wealth. And sometimes, yes, I suppose because of the lack of love. And even if those clients who have not received or don’t feel they’ve received a values legacy are married, they might not receive that from their in-laws either. But don’t write off those clients. Encourage them about the great opportunity they now have to be creators. Creators of a legacy of values that they can pass on to their children and future generations. There’s no clearer sign that something needs to be started than that it hasn’t started yet. The fact that it hasn’t started yet can be the motivation for starting it now. After all, true satisfaction and fulfillment including, I dare say for that client, is more about giving than receiving anyway. Their grandchildren will be grateful.

See again, I mentioned wealth. Certainly, it is fair to ask if a substantial fortune is necessary. Shouldn’t any family, regardless of material resources, be encouraged to develop a legacy of family values? Sure. But there’s no denying that it’s almost always wealth that gets clients in our doors. There surely is a place for an outreach about these kinds of values legacies in less wealthy families, but that is beyond the scope of this lecture. This is about the calling of the counselor in the context of the wealthier families that come to us with estate planning needs.

Challenge 7: Expanding Beyond Families

The seventh challenge is whether the benefits of a family legacy can spread beyond the family. One obvious answer is that a family that masters the art of preserving a values legacy can be a model of unity and collegiality for other families. There are several examples of that in the resources on the handout you have.

But a more intriguing answer lies in a return to the topic of serving others – shining a light. Using wealth that has been accumulated in the family and both the creativity and accountability that come from sharing ideas and plans, and accomplishments within the family. A family foundation or other philanthropic vehicle can give back to society in meaningful ways. You know that. Some examples: Creating or expanding critical wards at hospitals, or just supporting hospitals, endowing scholarships for students or chairs for faculty members, or just supporting schools, or supporting faith-based missions or benevolence, or conservation. Or helping other families develop this type of values legacy and service-minded attitude. And these are just examples. As appropriate in the circumstances, the counselor should be proactive in pointing out the opportunities to give back to the community. And usually the tax result is a good one!

But I want to return to the vision of reaching out to people with needs. People with needs- the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the unnoticed. For example, the homeless, the hungry, the victim of crime, the victim of flaws in the justice system, the aged, the single parent, the orphaned or abandoned or abused child, or the desperate person tormented by debt, a disability, an uninsured illness, an unwanted pregnancy, growing old alone, a death – or the ugly residue of centuries of racial prejudice, exploitation, and degradation. With regard to the racial justice themes that were the focus of the Symposium yesterday, (A Proposal to Repair Racial Wealth Disparity) it is crucial that while we are processing all the details, we are motivated and empowered by the principle that embracing responsibility to everyone and acknowledging responsibility for everyone is the responsibility of everyone. Let me say that again, more succinctly: Responsibility to everyone and responsibility for everyone is the responsibility of everyone.

And we know that philanthropy can play a role there too – 501c40, and so forth. And while we yearn for progress and will celebrate when there is progress, let us not be content just with progress. Those football teams my sons were on that I mentioned earlier knew they had to gain yards, but they also knew score no points and could not win just by gaining yards if the ball did not cross the goal line, in one of several ways in the football context of course.

Moreover, it is essential that we, and the legacy families we counsel, not be satisfied with just supporting such goals, even with philanthropy, if there is any way to also help by doing, not just by giving. Volunteering at a place that provides food and clothing to the homeless or counsel and comfort to the abused or desperate, providing transportation to those who have no other option, or tutoring or mentoring a disadvantaged young person. Any way to not only love our neighbors but love other neighborhoods.

And, as I said a few minutes ago, the family that finds fulfillment in that finds fulfillment indeed. Doing is hard to beat, except with one exception. This should inform all the initiatives we view as philanthropic. Strategically empowering and enabling others to do, can be better than our doing it for them.

Challenge 8: Applying Only Outside of Families

The eighth challenge is how useful the strategies and techniques developed in the context of preserving the benefits of family values and a family legacy can be when in effect there is no family. Some people have no family, or at least have no children and are not optimistic about recruiting their siblings to the mission. Or, even if they have children and maybe grandchildren too, it just doesn’t seem feasible to them to see that family fitting into the models of family legacies that counselors, like those cited in your handout, speak and write about. But they may have other communities where some of the principles of passing on values could still be useful. Communities like professional colleagues, charities, places of worship, apartment buildings, neighborhoods, clubs, or just friends.

Maybe. I can’t deny that. But that also is beyond the scope of this lecture.

Challenge 9: Defining “Success”

The ninth challenge is defining “success,” which should be an important part of all planning, shouldn’t it? Of course, 100% result should be the aspirational goal we design our efforts around. But all we can do is all we can do. A family legacy plan that follows all of the advice in the resources in your handout, for example, might still fall short. There might still be a child who doesn’t celebrate when a sibling gets more! Future generations might not learn or might not be supportive. Even with an appropriate allowance for flexibility and adaptability, it just might not work.

Or the client just might not follow the counselor’s advice or not even want advice. After all, the client makes the decisions. The counselor can only broaden the client’s horizon to see other paths and other objectives.

“Success” would then be defined as caring about the client, learning about the client, identifying the options that seem to the counselor to best fit the client’s circumstances, explaining those options clearly, encouraging their consideration, not guaranteeing an outcome, and then – having done all that – leaving the decisions up to the client.

Challenge 10: How Can We Help?

The tenth and final question is “How can I help? How can we help? How can ACTEC help?”

These things I have been discussing may not be for everyone. Everyone should embrace and support initiatives for encouraging the identification and transmission of family values legacies, but not everyone is best suited to provide that counsel to families that these initiatives contemplate. We should encourage our colleagues who have those talents, passions, and – well – calling.

In addition, colleagues with those specialized talents and passions could make practical contributions to our understanding of issues that I can address only in the abstract. In that light, I can envision the day when ACTEC affirms specialized talents and passions like that. For example, by reevaluating the weight given to speaking and writing in considering nominees for ACTEC membership. To be sure, speaking and writing provide convenient stages for getting to know nominees and validating them in the polls of Fellows. But are we missing some very good counselors? Is it possible we should we be affirming other paths for nominees? Including those counselors, who shine in offices and conference rooms and at family meetings and retreats and, I daresay, would shine in committee meetings and task force meetings more than they could shine on speaking or writing stage? Maybe because they don’t get the same opportunities to speak and write, or because they don’t have the passion or aptitude – it’s just not their thing. If we can develop careful and prudent ways to identify such nominees even though they might not have that much of a public credential of speaking or writing, I would like to meet them, welcome them, learn from them, and watch ACTEC flourish even more because of them. Not to lower the bar for membership, or raise the bar, but to lengthen the bar to make it available to those on other paths who are modeling ACTEC-quality ingenuity in their response to “The Calling of the Counselor.”


So, I close with a challenge to each of you – to coach you up! Look for ways in your practice to be a counselor – to counsel clients to nourish a legacy of family values. Coach them up! Look for colleagues who have the talent and aptitude to be those counselors. Coach them up too. Look for opportunities – in the example you set, for the colleagues you encourage, and for the clients you counsel – to serve and enable others. And always remember, responsibility to everyone and responsibility for everyone is the responsibility of everyone. Thank you very much for listening.

This concludes our ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk Special: “The Calling of the Counselor in Counseling Families.” Thank you, Ron, for your continued guidance and counsel, and for pushing the trust and estate profession to be thoughtful in the counsel of families and for us to recognize the special honor and responsibility that we have in this calling of counseling families.

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