Sheri MacMillan’s approach to estate planning involves much more than taxes and law. By focusing first on people – their individual values, beliefs and significance – MacMillan and her team at MacMillan Estate Planning employ a unique method of helping clients plan for their family’s future well-being.
“Our first goal is to preserve harmony,” MacMillan explains.
Harmony, and how it’s achieved, is different for every family, and MacMillan and her team make it their mission to determine this in each case. “We get to the heart of the family dynamics and issues,” she says. “We’re working with the most personal things – death, money, religion, values, children – so it’s really an emotional process. It’s rare, truthfully, to create a plan that doesn’t involve some tears along the way, but there’s still a lot of joy.”
It’s MacMillan’s passion for that joy, and her commitment to ensuring the best outcomes for her clients, that has propelled her and Calgary-based MacMillan Estate Planning since inception 24 years ago.
A third-generation Calgarian, MacMillan’s interest in estate planning germinated when she was young. The eldest of six children, she witnessed her grandfather’s experience of managing his family’s estate, which ultimately resulted in conflict and discord in the family. “After that, Christmas was never the same,” she laments. “So, I said that when I grew up, I would fix that for our family and others.”
Having recently graduated, MacMillan was working at a large financial institution when she happened to advise a senior couple in their 80s. “They were there to renew a half-million-dollar GIC,” MacMillan explains. “After a few minutes chatting with them I could tell they didn’t have a plan for the money. So, I asked them if they might need it for an income stream or perhaps for other expenses. What was its purpose? They really didn’t have an answer, so I told them not to renew it, but to think about it and come back in a couple of weeks.”
This was advice her boss did not appreciate. “You’d think I’d murdered somebody!” she recalls of being chastised for putting the client’s needs before the bank’s profits. “I went home that night and said to my husband [her junior high sweetheart]: ‘It’s not right. The whole industry is built on pushing products instead of planning. I just don’t want to do it.’”
She quit her job and two weeks later, at just 24 years old, MacMillan started MacMillan Estate Planning with a secretary and some rented office space. In less than 90 days, she had 38 clients. “I just opened the phone book and started calling people,” she recalls. “I told them I was doing estate planning for families, and they’d come visit me and I’d show them what I can do. And that was it. I’ve never looked back.”
Referrals ensured a steady stream of work, and MacMillan quickly understood her purpose. “Within my second year I realized that my true job was safeguarding significance,” she reveals. “Meaning whatever is of value and importance to that family in that moment and into the future is what my job is. For some families it’s about protecting a disabled child. For others it’s about building their business. For another it’s about protecting children that are terrible at money management. It just depends.”
Today, MacMillan Estate Planning services high-net-worth clients all over the world, focusing on Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Its employees include lawyers, accountants and financial planners who work holistically together to meet each client’s every need.
“Our clients don’t need to go outside of us,” MacMillan says. “We offer our clients a one-stop-shop service – everything a client needs to effectively plan their estate is under our roof. We’ve grown our teams to be capable of servicing quite an international type of client with a multitude of estate planning requirements.”
MacMillan Estate Planning’s services include trust planning, will planning, business succession, tax planning, generational planning, investments and assets, probate and estates, and charitable giving.
“For the majority of our high-net-worth clients, trust planning is the right approach, which I call putting a fence around the family asset base,” MacMillan explains. “To protect it from non-family, typically exes and new spouses, we put a trust around the family assets and the only parties that can access the family assets are the family members, not the new ones who arrive on the scene later. There’s also wonderful tax opportunities for family businesses with trusts.”
While estate planning typically brings to mind after-life affairs, MacMillan says 80 per cent of MacMillan Estate Planning’s work is life planning. “Designing a person’s wealth to be efficient every calendar year until they turn 100,” she explains, “because people are living that long now. The objective is to map out and optimize the estate throughout their lifespan, and then to share it.”
She delineates the three phases of retirement as early, mid and late. Early is when most people enjoy their own lives, travelling and doing other activities, whereas mid-retirement is typically oriented to giving back, and the latter part is more about family. “We build a road map for retirement: how to accomplish their goals and objectives while also be supported by the estate for the next three decades, for example,” she says. “Our clients get really excited by this, because, after all, we live longer in retirement than we do in our working careers.”
The other 20 per cent of MacMillan Estate Planning’s work is on the legacy plan, which ultimately looks to protect children and grandchildren once the client and their spouse are gone.
MacMillan Estate Planning’s clients run the gamut but tend to have a million dollars or more in assets generally. “In Calgary we have a lot of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and a bulk of clients in their 80s,” she says. “In London we expect to have more young people, as there’s a lot of tech and new money in that city.” To date, MacMillan Estate Planning has helped thousands of clients.
To build a typical plan takes roughly six months to a year, with the client attending at MacMillan Estate Planning’s offices every few weeks to work it through. “We’ve never built the same plan twice,” MacMillan points out. “Every family is unique, and every plan is customized.”
A flat-rate pricing system means clients know exactly what they’re paying. “It makes it easy for clients not to be afraid to talk to us for an extra half an hour or whatever they need,” MacMillan says. “And we really like that because it keeps us bonded to our families and we don’t feel any pressure. We just do the right thing and it’s good for all of us.”
Once a plan is completed, MacMillan Estate Planning continues to work with clients on an annualized basis to support their plan. “Traditionally we’ll meet with them one or two more times every year to catch up on what’s new in their lives and what changed and then bring in whatever’s changed in law or tax,” she explains. “I call it the maintenance of the house – after it’s built, we still go back and make sure everything is kept up to par.”
Clients’ information is coded in MacMillan Estate Planning’s computer system so that when new legislation comes into play, in whatever jurisdiction, affected clients can be contacted quickly to address any changes that might be needed.
Beyond estate planning, MacMillan is a passionate conservationist, and is in the process of bringing the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT), which operates the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world, to Canada. “We pledged the first million dollars,” MacMillan says, “and we’re really hoping to raise quite a few more million for them over time. We’ve adopted a lot of little orphaned elephants for our clients; they’re really sweet.”
Founded in 1977, SWT has to date successfully raised 247 orphaned elephants that have been released back into the Kenyan wild, from which 31 new baby elephants have been born in the wild.
MacMillan Estate Planning has also supported the Calgary Zoo Conservation Fund, the Arthritis Society and various causes related to clients. “This is our second year sponsoring a dental practice that travels to South America to provide dental work for children,” she says proudly.
MacMillan is involved in several industry organizations, has been a leading authority on AM770’s “Talk to the Experts” for the past 17 years, and hosts her own radio program, the Strongroom. She speaks at various engagements and hosts many seminars on estate planning. MacMillan has been recognized with several awards including a 2018 Leaders of Tomorrow Award from this magazine. Furthermore, her firm was named Finance Monthly’s Canadian Trust Planning Advisory Firm of the Year for both the 2018 and 2019 M&A Awards.
“My leadership style is to service my people,” she acknowledges. “My hope is that by actively supporting my team to live up to their potential and zone of genius, they in turn will do this for their cohorts, and ultimately for our clients. It’s exponential.” She shares a quote: “Leadership is not about control but service. It’s not about power but empowerment.”
An avid reader who loves animals, MacMillan enjoys running, yoga, dancing and playing the cello when she has time. “I am a real gentle soul by nature,” she admits with a smile. “I’m the proudest when my family feels loved, when my team feels loved, when my clients feel loved – then I know we’re on the right track in the business. l’m a ‘pie in the sky’ person, but it has worked for me.”
One of her favourite quotes best sums her up: “At the end of life, what really matters is not what we bought but what we built; not what we got but what we shared; not our competence but our character; and not our success but our significance. Live a life that matters. Live a life of love.”