‘I help people realise their goals, face their fears, resolve conflict…’

Rebecca Huscroft, Founder & Estate Planner with iform and member of the British Psychological Society, on the psychology of planning for death…

As the old saying goes, life’s only certainties are death and taxes. So why do we avoid and delay planning for death? Granted, three times more Wills were written in 2020 than any other year, peaking when Boris Johnson was admitted to ICU. But when news of the vaccine broke, it seems we reverted to type. Well, booking the post-lockdown holiday of a lifetime seems so much more joyful, right? 

If we accept that death is a natural part of life, and that most of us possess an instinctive yearning to protect loved ones and provide security, why do so many fail to plan? It’s estimated that only around 40 per cent of Brits have a Will. Isn’t that an illogical, risky gamble with no upside but disastrous downsides? 

As a self-professed ‘lay Psychologist’ (BSc) and professional Estate Planner who has enjoyed 18 years of advising clients on the ‘big and serious stuff’, I firmly believe that insight into why we appear to be serial avoiders, and associated support and reform, could change the lives of generations.

Yet despite this, little has been written about the Psychology of Estate Planning, despite decades of damaging financial and emotional consequences for families lacking the legal protection afforded by a Will. Yet there is much that is psychological in how I approach my work as an Estate Planner. It can feel as if I’m working as a psychologist might with their client, to help people realise their goals, face their fears, resolve conflict and work to a defined and desirable outcome. 

My role is probably one of the most personal, classified and sensitive of all the advisory roles, with my duty of care and responsibility established on a strong sense of trust and confidence with the client. It requires careful, sensitive yet unfiltered approach to some difficult questions. Let’s face it: illegitimate children, undisclosed fortunes and family secrets are often revealed, becoming a pivotal and even cathartic part of the planning process. Honest and meaningful contemplation will reveal a person’s true desires. 

Excuses, excuses…

Some common excuses to avoid making a Will:

1.         I don’t have much

2.         My husband/wife will get everything anyway

3.         I haven’t got time

4.         It’s too expensive

5.         It’s too complicated

When such objections are challenged with factual information, people often still cling to them. Is this a defence mechanism, to ward off uncomfortable emotion? Making a Will undoubtedly makes our mortality salient, and there is a lot of psychology research out there on the impact this can have. But bear in mind, as Freud said, denial typically only hurts oneself!

Then there’s procrastination. We all procrastinate from time to time, and jobs on our ‘to-do list’ can sit there for a while, but what about persistent procrastination? In my experience undefined, vague goals and an unclear vision of how they may be achieved leads to procrastination – we only change something if it is enough of a problem for us. According to researcher and clinical psychologist Alexander Rozental, procrastination occurs due to a perceived lack of value, and an inability to achieve one’s goals. 

That question of value is an interesting one when it comes to a Will: it’s perhaps harder to see the value in something that comes into play after we have gone. Compare with insuring our homes, which seems to come naturally; fundamentally, a Will is an insurance policy. It provides clarity, and protection against divorce, creditors, tax and even care fees. And buying a Will is a little like buying a car, with specifications and individual requirements impacting cost. In reality that cost is negotiable, and quantifiable, and in the control of the buyer. 

In my experience the offer of a free Will does not lead to automatic and immediate take up. Many still want to think about it and ‘do it later’. We do not simply buy on price alone! Yet during ‘free will month’, many charities hope for gifts left in Wills in return for a free Will. Sounds great, but in reality, they cost charities millions each year, often with disappointing gifts in return.

Other initiatives aiming to increase the uptake of Will writing include the rise of online Wills. A simple, speedy, and low-cost solution make this a seemingly easy choice for some. This plays into the psychology of using limited options and familiarity to make decisions easy and simple, and even automatic. Going one step further are ‘Robo Wills’ generated by algorithms. Addressing legalities and practicalities without getting too bogged down with all the emotional stuff… maybe that’s an easier route for some to contemplate? 

Biases and more

Will writers are selling a service. Like any industry there are good, bad and indifferent services. There is marked divergence between providers in terms of terminology used, knowledge, experience, morality and of course commerciality. This makes the decision to make a Will even more difficult than it already was! 

Will writers need to be great communicators, with equally proficient listening and questioning skill. Establishing a person’s true desire requires experience, insight, intuition and yes, a grasp of human behaviour. I often feel like a Counsellor frequently spending hours understanding a family: the dynamics, conflicts, history, their personal perspective, and feelings of generosity, or not. Disinheriting close family is both emotional and traumatic for testators, and potentially contentious for the instruction taker. 

Effective problem solving is the ultimate goal. Cognitive biases shape and influence decisions, based on personal experience. For example, fear is both powerful and capable of disabling the freedom to decide! Whilst we strive to be logical, and rational, Daniel Kahneman has explained how we make decisions using cognitive shortcuts or heuristics (recall of past events), potentially leading us to miscalculate risk. I believe cognitive biases are a major influence on our readiness to plan ahead. We seem adept deniers, capable of putting fears into a ‘little box’ and rationalising them to reduce internal conflict or dilemma,. But ultimately, we’re just making what could be an easy decision into a great emotional challenge!

When it comes to that emotional conflict or dilemma around fairness and reason, my experience is that men tend to take a more pragmatic, logical approach, solving ‘the problem’ practically. Women are often keen to provide specific and detailed information about the family, consideration of who gets what, even down to minute detail about jewellery and other personal items. Responses seem speedy as if instinctive and intuitive, with clear concern for the longer term, leaving little to chance, and prioritising fairness. In my experience men seem to suffer less from procrastination than women, yet initial enquiries are almost always initiated by women seeking advice. Industry stats suggest more Wills are made by women than men.  

A fresh approach

My view is that Estate Planning can address and resolve the emotional reasoning around engagement, making it more ‘normal’ and accessible. Practical knowledge and experience, conveyed in jargon-free and relatable language, may reduce the likelihood of procrastination. Solutions based on facts and need, free of the sales pitch and emotional exploitation, will improve the experience and create choice and better outcomes.

Perhaps most clear to me is the need for a fresh approach which actively encourages people to want to plan ahead – to enjoy it even! That progressive and lively approach to death planning may well need psychology and psychologists at its core.

Rebecca Huscroft (BSc Hons) MBSsS
Founder & Estate Planner
Creating. Planning. Legacies
[email protected]

"I would like to invite Psychologists to get involved with comments, insight and further research. I also do financial education on this for NHS staff to improve well-being and want to involve Psychologists in this too! I would love any introductions or suggestions on how I may get people involved to facilitate and strengthen this free wellbeing service we provide."

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