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Navigating Legacy Planning During a Pandemic: Helping Clients Find Peace of Mind in a Crisis

We all respond to crises differently. Some people buy the extra large bag of M&M’s. Others clean out their closets. Still others reflect on their life and their purpose. These days, many of us are doing all three. If you’ve noticed an increase in clients interested in legacy planning, the COVID-19 pandemic might be the reason.

Amid the pandemic, professional advisors can serve clients in new ways by framing conversations thoughtfully, paying attention to emotion, and helping clients explore effective ways of giving, both to loved ones and to charity. 

Estate planning vs. legacy planning

Setting the tone for a planning conversation is especially meaningful during the pandemic. At its core, estate planning is about what happens to a client’s assets upon their death. Some clients want to move assets between generations and avoid taxes - and that’s it.

Many clients have a more nuanced vision, even if they can’t articulate that vision at the outset. Professional advisors can introduce the concept of legacy planning, which moves beyond tax planning strategies to focus on purpose, values, and impact. In this context, tax planning achieves a goal but isn’t the goal in itself.

By distinguishing between estate planning and legacy planning, an advisor can encourage clients to think big and to see the advisor as their partner in achieving a sense of purpose.

For a resource to help clients think about wealth, family, and legacy, try Charles Collier’s book, Wealth in Families. The book guides families to think about how their wealth and their goals interact, and it includes questionnaires that can help clients jump start their thinking.

Framing the experience as legacy planning can make the process more fulfilling, which is helpful during a pandemic when many people are feeling unmoored. By reminding clients that planning for death can be a way to celebrate life, advisors help their clients find meaning in the course of planning.

Questions for clients

  • What principles have guided your legacy planning to date? What principles would you like to guide our conversation now? (Adapted from Charles Collier’s Wealth in Families)
  • Think about your last will and testament as your final teaching. What do you want it to say? (Adapted from Rabbi Mordechai Leibling)


Emotional intelligence

To a professional, legacy planning can feel like any other transaction. It’s just part of the job. Without meaning to, we can forget what our clients hear: a discussion of their inevitable death. 

Sensitivity to the emotion is especially relevant during the pandemic. The news includes daily discussions of mortality rates, and you never know if your client talked to their 87-year-old parent moments before your meeting.

If your usual five minutes of greeting and small talk becomes thirty minutes of discussing your respective pandemic challenges, it will be time well spent. Ultimately, you know your clients, and you know who wants to chat and who doesn’t. Giving extra attention to emotions might pay dividends for your client relationship and your client’s satisfaction with the process.

Questions for clients

  • How are you today? (Because “How are you?” is too big to answer and will often elicit a response of “Fine, you?”)
  • What’s been difficult for you in the last few weeks? What are your highlights from the last few weeks?

Philanthropic guidance

Philanthropy looks different during a pandemic, so philanthropic planning will look different too. If a client knows exactly what they want to give through their estate—for example, 10 percent to their alma mater—this conversation can be simple. Often it will be more complex.

If you’re looking for resources for yourself or your clients, consider Tracy Gary’s Inspired Philanthropy: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Giving Plan and Leaving a Legacy, which guides readers through questions to hone their philanthropic vision. For clients who want their philanthropy to produce meaningful, measurable outcomes, try Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleishman’s book, Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results.

Philanthropic consultants can help clients translate their broad ideas into a firm plan. If your client isn’t in a position to hire a consultant or they’re seeking local expertise, community foundations also provide this service. Additionally, community foundations can execute your clients’ philanthropic vision, including aspects of the plan that are designed to adapt as the needs of the community change.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, clients may struggle to clarify their charitable plans. Translating a personal legacy into a few charitable gifts is especially difficult when the world’s needs are suddenly different. Help your clients by reminding them that they can amend their plan later, so they shouldn’t let a desire for a perfect plan prevent them from completing a good plan.

Questions for clients

  • Think about the world. What would you like to change or preserve? (From Tracy Gary’s Inspired Philanthropy)
  • What is your vision of a better world? What conditions are needed to realize it? What are the obstacles? (From Peter Karoff’s The World We Want: New Dimensions in Philanthropy and Social Change)

Shifting the charitable timeline

In discussing philanthropy and legacy, your clients may note their philanthropic priorities are changing amid the pandemic. Their long-standing passions may feel less important as they consider the urgent needs in the world. 

Advisors can add to a clients’ sense of purpose by reminding them that there’s no need to wait until their lives are over to impact their community. If COVID-19 has inspired them to support a new charitable priority, advice from a financial professional can help them understand how much they can give immediately.

Meanwhile, their long-term legacy plan can still focus on their time-tested priorities, with or without new interests. This hybrid model of making an impact now and later can help a client feel more fulfilled by their giving, and more comfortable finalizing their estate documents.

Questions for clients

  • When you think about the world, what keeps you awake at night? Would it be meaningful to you to impact that problem during your lifetime, after you’re gone, or both?
  • What information would you need from me (or from your financial advisor) to feel free to give in the way you feel compelled to give?

As the pandemic leaves many of us feeling vulnerable, legacy planning provides an opportunity for clients to find meaning, control, and peace of mind. By approaching legacy planning conversations with thoughtfulness and kindness, professional advisors have the unique opportunity to deepen relationships with clients while providing a powerful and important service.

About The Columbus Foundation

The Columbus Foundation serves nearly 3,000 individuals, families, and businesses that have created unique funds and planned gifts to make a difference in the lives of others through the most effective philanthropy possible. The Columbus Foundation is Your Trusted Philanthropic Advisor® and is one of the top ten largest community foundations in the country.

May 27, 2020


Christine Donovan, JD, CFRE, CAP®, is the Associate Director for Donor Services