The Psychology of Estate Planning: An Interview with Lawyer Kori Whisenant

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Estate Planning Lawyer Kori Whisenant shares her story in a recent interview with AskLegally.

Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a lawyer? What inspired you to pursue a career in law?

I went to college to be a psychologist because I really enjoyed helping people get to the root of a problem and help them work through it. When I reached my Junior year in college, I found out that I would be forced to publish articles several times a year if I pursued a Master’s Degree in Psychology. I had no desire to be forced to write, so I went to my counselor for assistance. He was actually the one to suggest I go to law school.

He said “you are very analytical and like all of your ‘t’s crossed and i’s dotted’. I think you would be a very good lawyer and they are counselors too.” He had me take a “Psychology and the Law” class and I loved it. The rest is history. I now have combined my Psychology degree and my Estate Planning knowledge and it has been a really effective combination for my clients.

How did you develop an interest in estate planning and probate law specifically?

Two distinct things drew me to Estate Planning law. First, my older sister was in a car accident when I was a little girl. She almost didn’t survive and if it weren’t for my parents insisting that each of us sign a Health Care POA when we left the house at 18 I can’t promise you she wouldn’t have. That experience has really shaped my passion for helping people create these documents.

Second, I wanted a career that would afford me the ability to be a parent. I have two young boys and I am able to stay at home with them while still doing what I love. I can write a will from my couch with my kids curled up next me. Best of both worlds.

Can you share an example of a particularly challenging case you’ve worked on in estate planning or probate law and how you navigated it?

A particularly challenging case in Probate Law that I’ve been a part of was when I was working as an associate with a private firm. A client passed away and I found out that he did not have a will or any beneficiaries designated. This gentleman had 6 children, and the executor lived in Hawaii. Finding times for a meeting with time zone difference was a major challenge, as well as attempting to get her signature on all of the required documentation.

To make matters more complicated, he had over $5M in assets, a significant portion of that amount in real estate that was all over the country. I worked with attorneys in 3 different states as well as fielded questions and concerns from the Court and family members here in Cleveland. I worked on this case for 2 years and I admit I ended up leaving the firm before it was concluded. I looked back on the court docket later and it was finally concluded after 2.5 years. There are DEFINITELY ways to prepare so that this situation does not occur.

How do you help clients navigate complex estate planning and probate laws and regulations?

Regulations are actually something I really enjoy (yes I know…I’m a nerd LOL). I have always been good at breaking them down and understanding the meaning behind them. I therefore, have the ability to break them down into “layman’s” terms for my clients. I do not allow any of my clients to sign any document without fully understanding what the law is and why it’s in place. I believe in full disclosure so that these documents become part of my client’s lives rather than just end up being paper on a shelf.

How do you approach conversations with clients who may not want to think about end-of-life planning or who may not fully understand the importance of estate planning?

Now that is a delicate process. I try hard to make these conversations more about preserving life, than preparing for death. I show my potential clients that in truth, only one of the documents (the will) actually deals with what is to be done after your death. The rest of the documents help protect your person and your assets while you’re living. Once you can help people with the mindset shift and show them the choices they can make to effectuate a smoother outcome, they are much more willing to participate in the discussion. Education is the keystone to building a comprehensive and complete plan that is tailored to your client’s needs and wishes.

How do you stay up-to-date with changes in estate planning and probate laws and regulations?

I take classes from various places including the local Bar Association and the Ohio State Bar Association. I also read articles that are put out by the Courts as well as from financial advisors that talk about the shift in laws that affect our clients.

How do you balance the legal and emotional aspects of advising clients on estate planning matters?

I actually consider the cross between the legal and emotional aspects of Estate Planning to be where I shine the most. Considering my degree in Psychology, I have a unique ability to understand both the person and the law. I integrate the two, ensuring that I take care of both my client’s “why” and their “what”. What I mean by this is that people usually don’t come see an Estate Planner unless something has happened to make them scared.

It could be that a close family member or friend passed away without a will and they are seeing the effects of the lack of preparation. It could be that they just had a new baby and now they are frightened of what will happen if they pass away before the child has grown up. Whatever it is, I first help my clients understand and deal with the “why” of their choice to come see me. Once we’ve established that, we can determine how best to create their Estate Plan to make sure it protects/plans for those fears. That’s the best way to give your clients peace of mind as well as a complete plan in my opinion.

Can you share your thoughts on the importance of creating a comprehensive estate plan, particularly for those with significant assets?

As I’ve stated in previous questions above, having a complete and comprehensive plan is essential to being prepared for the “just in case” situations of life. I believe this no matter what the amount of assets. When a person has a significant amount of assets it just means that we need to explore more avenues of protection to ensure that they are receiving the highest level of tax and creditor protection possible so that the funds/assets are protected for future generations. A comprehensive estate plan is both documents and discussion. I teach my clients that they must share their wishes and plans with their family members so that everyone is on the same page. Then when the inevitable happens, everyone is much more prepared.

How do you approach working with families during the probate process, particularly when there may be disputes or disagreements over assets?

I have definitely had my fair share of fighting beneficiaries, especially when siblings are involved. I act as the mediator, bringing the focus back on the task at hand rather than their feelings about the other people in the room. You have to understand that the grief and pain are what’s causing the issues. If you focus on that rather than the beneficiaries’ actions, you can keep a cooler head. If they are unable to come to an agreement or if the disputes rise to the level of requiring litigation, I have colleagues that I can call upon to assist me in that situation. I, myself, do not do any sort of probate litigation.

Finally, what advice would you give to individuals who may be hesitant to start the estate planning process or who may not know where to begin?

I would say that the longer you wait to get these documents done, the more likely it is that something unforeseen will occur and then it will be too late. I don’t say that to be doom and gloom, but just to be realistic. Tomorrow is promised to none of us, so I want to help as many people as I can to understand what choices they can make, what each document can do for them, and how to create a plan that will protect themselves and their families.

If you don’t know where to begin, start with finding an attorney that you can trust. I am more than happy to help anyone in the Cleveland, OH area start the ball rolling. I provide a free 30 minute consultation. Feel free to use this link to set up a call with me.

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Nick Kellermeyer

Nick Kellermeyer is an experienced entrepreneur and angel investor. His startup experience spans restaurant tech, legal tech, ecommerce, marketplaces, food tech, saas, ad agencies, and much more. Nick received his BS from the University of Dayton and his MBA from DePaul University.

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