Estate Planning While Black: Representation Matters

Like many people at LNWM, Debra Smiley gives some of her time and expertise to local nonprofits where she can make a difference. As one of the relatively few Black women in the US with a long career in trusts and estate planning, Debra’s aim is twofold: creating awareness among people of color about the importance of multigenerational wealth planning (aka estate planning) and doing what she can to attract more Black people to her line of work. We sat down with Debra to find out about her life at work and in the community.

Q&A with Debra Smiley, LNWM Director, Client Services 

Debra, you’ve been working in trusts and estate planning for nearly 20 years. How did you end up making this your life’s work?

Debra: I stumbled into it. I didn’t start out thinking this was an area where I can make a difference in terms of helping Black people understand what wealth is or how to use it. I actually attended college to become an opera singer but ended up using my accounting skills to land a job in the operations department of a trust company to support my growing family. This is where I started to learn something completely new.

I was able to move up from trust operations into administration based on the recommendation of a manager who became a friend. And over time, I realized there were very few other Black people in trust administration, which is not transactional but allows you to use acquired knowledge for the benefit of your client. It is very difficult to advance in a field where no one looks like you. Representation matters.

How can the cycle of exclusivity be broken?

Debra: I believe we need to work on both the “supply” and “demand” sides of the equation.

On the demand side, I think it is about making Black people aware that estate planning is something everyone needs to do. That it is not something that just wealthy people do. The passing on of assets to children and grandchildren is how you build multigenerational wealth. And a lot of education needs to happen around that in my community. There is a long history of Black people being misled or underserved by financial institutions that needs to be addressed.

On the supply side, we need to get more people of color into the field of wealth management and estate planning. The next generation of Black youth are looking to gain wealth. They are working for themselves. As opportunities for them grow, they will be looking for financial professionals that look like them to create generational wealth.

What sort of outreach are you doing at the local level to create awareness about estate planning?

Debra: When I can, and LNWM has been very supportive of this, I am getting out into the Black community to talk about what estate planning is and why it is important. As a community, we cannot talk about generational wealth without knowing anything about the toolkit used to obtain it. Estate planning is the toolkit.

I tell my personal story. My great-grandmother bought property on the south side of Chicago when she came to the city during the Great Migration. From that piece of land, she not only housed her family, she had rental income from an apartment unit and a livery cab business. All of this supported the extended family for decades. But when she was unable to care for herself, the property was sold because “it had served its purpose” and it would require money to maintain. No one looked into financing or other ways to keep it in the family. Today, on the property where I grew up as a child, sits a McDonald’s in a prime location.

My point is that our property was not thought of as an asset that could provide income and capital appreciation for family members over many generations. It is this type of long-term thinking and strategizing that is especially important now given the high level of housing prices and other assets.

I also think my work at UNCF (United Negro College Fund) as a member of the leadership council ties into this. UNCF’s focus has always been to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and provide college financing to Black high school students to attend whatever college they choose. But it is also about empowering Black youth with knowledge, information, and confidence so they can complete college and start rewarding careers that help them and their families create and build wealth. Bottom line: representation matters.

You will be President of the Seattle Estate Planning Council fairly soon (recently named President-Elect). What is the Seattle Estate Planning Council doing in terms of DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion)?

Debra: Quite a bit. When I first joined the Council at the invitation of its then President-Elect Kim Cacace, it was refreshing to see they were already talking about ways to increase diversity. The Council is questioning existing policies and trying to bring in a new generation of people so it is not perceived as an “exclusive club.” We’re rethinking how people are accepted into the Estate Planning Council, membership dues, and new ways to attract younger and more diverse applicants.

All this is necessary for the sustainability of the Council, the estate planning field, and because it is the right thing to do. We are also looking to educate members on how estate planning may have, in effect, perpetuated long-standing inequities for people of color. A recent speaker for our quarterly dinner was Dr. Dorothy Brown, author of The Whiteness of Wealth, discussing how the US tax Code has contributed to widening the wealth gap and making suggestions for improvement.

Read this Puget Sound Business Journal article featuring Debra Smiley and efforts to narrow the wealth gap in communities of color. (Subscription required to access.)