Friday, January 30, 2009

My First Seminar

I presented my first free, educational seminar this week. The topic was " How to Avoid Probate", and the attendance was a pleasant surprise to me. While the topic concerns death and touches upon disability and taxes, there is definitely a need for the kind of information that I presented.

First, what is your probate estate? In Massachusetts, your probate estate consists of assets that you own solely in your name when you die. Whether or not you leave a will, if you died owning assets in your name alone, the probate court is the venue required for legally changing title to those assets, getting them out of the name of the deceased person, and into the names of his or her heirs or beneficiaries.

If you don't write a will, then the probate court is the great decider; the court decides for you, according to the laws of intestacy and distribution, who gets your stuff, so if you have not properly planned for the disposal of your assets, the probate court will do it for you.

If you left a will, the probate court will oversee the payment of your debts and the distribution of your assets according to your wishes. There are many ways to avoid the delay, cost, and time involved in a full probate proceeding, and my seminar discussed the tools and strategies that can be used to achieve a non-probate estate, and eliminate the need for a full probate proceeding.

However, there were several people in the audience who assumed that avoiding probate meant that you also avoided estate taxes.

I'm very sorry to tell you that this is not the case.

Your TAXABLE estate consists of all assets in which you had an ownership interest when you died. That means probate assets, and other assets including traditionally non-probate assets such as life insurance that you owned; 401k's and profit-sharing plans; Inter Vivos Trust assets, if any, and also annuities. This list is not exhaustive; for example, the estate tax may also include certain transfers of property made within 3 years prior to death, among other things. Basically, if you had an ownership interest in an asset, it could be a countable asset included in your taxable estate.

I'll stop here and spare you the details on what you can deduct in order to reduce your taxable estate, because I don't want anyone to fall asleep. Suffice it to say that there is an enormous difference between a probate estate and a taxable estate, that most people don't realize it, and that I think people might be planning their estates under the erroneous belief that avoiding probate = avoiding estate taxes.

Let me make this very clear: estate planning can include tax planning strategies and probate avoidance strategies, but involves much more sophisticated planning than the average Joe or Jane should attempt on their own. So hire me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

What does a Paralegal do?

Whatever the boss tells them to, har har!

Disclaimer: This post is biased toward Paralegals.

As a former Paralegal, I can give you some insight on this. Generally speaking, Paralegals are persons specifically educated (in either Certificate, or more commonly, 2 or 4 year college degree programs) to perform many of the tasks that an attorney performs, under the supervision of an attorney. At all times, a supervising attorney is ultimately responsible for her Paralegal's work product.

To be frank, some lawyers and law firms simply don't know what to do with a Paralegal, how to best utilize their skills. In my years as a Paralegal, I worked at various firms, each of which had a different use for my abilities. Sometimes Paras end up in unchallenging positions in which their daily workload is largely administrative, consisting of simple editing, writing letters, filing, copying, etc., and this can lead to boredom, frustration and job burnout. One wonders why they hired a Para, when a Legal Secretary could do the job. (This is not a put-down of secretaries, it is an observation that Paralegals are trained to perform substantive legal work, and secretaries are not. If you need lots of transcription, copying, filing, reception of clients, etc., and you are not comfortable with delegating your legal work, then you should hire a secretary.)

At the other end of the spectrum, there are some lawyers who maximize their Paras, and assign to them significant legal research tasks and legal drafting projects. Their attitude is, "take a stab at it", and a Para who has good legal research and writing skills can save an attorney quite a bit of time and time is money! Sometimes Paras are required to log a certain number of billable hours, just as attorneys are, and there is constant pressure to meet that billing quota. In this way, they are sort of like attorneys, but without the larger paycheck!

I have also worked with Paras who never seemed to master the legal research and writing basics, perhaps because this was not stressed in their educational program. This is another issue, the fact that the quality of Paralegal Education programs and standards varies. I was fortunate to have graduated from a Paralegal program that stressed the importance of legal research and writing, which are the foundation for the practice of law. The tools that a good Para can bring to a law firm are valuable and should be utilized.

These same skills helped me to get through law school. It was easier for me to navigate the law library and the online legal research sources and to draft various pleadings, simply because I had solid experience doing so. In my opinion, legal research and writing skills are absolutely the foundation of good lawyering. Sometimes lawyers themselves lack a solid foundation in legal research, so a knowledgable Paralegal could be indespensible to them, if they recognize and utilize their Paralegal appropriately.

If my practice grows to point where I can hire staff, I would choose a well-educated Paralegal (even without experience) versus a Secretary without hesitation. There is real value, in terms of their knowledge of legal concepts, and their ability to do tasks that can potentially save me time. And once again, when you're a lawyer, time IS money.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Marketing, networking, and becoming visible

This past week, I focused a large chunk of time to marketing. All of my peers have said that
radio/tv/and even local print advertising had very little return on investment for them, and that they gained most of their business by word of mouth. People know you, they like you & trust you, so they refer others to you.

I am invisible, if I simply sit here in my office space and hope that people will somehow "find" me. Also, some of my own family members still think that I work for my previous law firm, and had no idea that I had hung out my own shingle.

I believe an Internet presence is very important, because today's consumer often researches businesses online, rather than flipping through the yellow pages. That is one reason why I started blogging; it will allow potential clients to read a bit about me personally, and find articles and news of note, and it will also (I hope) help other solos or aspiring solos. Sadly, I received news this past week that one of my lawyer friends had lost her job, and another was in danger of losing hers at any moment. I think perhaps that many lawyers are considering going solo, or starting a practice with a friend from law school because they simply have to.
And if law is your business, you have to sell yourself.

I joined a group for business owners, and I was surprised at how many of them are utterly without any online presence, and have never joined and social networking groups. Many of them had never heard of Linked-In, or Facebook, and had never taken advantage of such online advertisement venues such as MerchantCircle. Some people do not even have a website.
I think it's imperative to use these tools, in addition to blogging, so that potential clients can get an idea of you, the lawyer, as a person, and as a source of professional advice.

As an aside, the online services (& MerchantCircle basic version) are FREE, and provide a surefire way to enhance your web presence.

I did send basic snail-mail "I'm in Business" announcements to family, friends, and my business group, and I have will be presenting a free seminar in town in order to let people get to know me better. These seminars will be ongoing and presented on an at least monthly basis. I think it is absolutely KEY that people learn who I am and what I do, and get acquainted with my business style. I am not a salesperson; but I am knowledgeable, professional, and I deeply care about what I do, and whom I can assist with my legal skills. These are traits that people will only recognize by meeting me.

In order to reach my local fellow business owners, I went walking & knocking, literally! I just went from business to business, introducing myself, letting people know I am here, and what I do. In most cases, the business owner was in and warmly welcomed me; in a couple of cases, their employees were there and could not have cared less. In order to reach my family, friends, business associates, and networking groups, I maintain an accurate and up-to-date data base, so that I can email or snail-mail any new events.

I plan to start a Meetup group of my own, a business support group for the benefit of local business owners of Hamilton-Wenham, to help each other during this economic downturn. These efforts do take an awful lot of time & energy, and maybe a certain outgoing personality for the walking & knocking technique, but I think that most of the strategies and tools for marketing are affordable and easy enough for even LAWYERS to employ. (Lawyers are not historically known for being technologically forward-thinking. Ahem.)

Signing off for now, got to go set up a Meetup of my own!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Planning for Eldercare

"Planning for Eldercare" January 15, 2009
Return to Article Page Eldercare & Veterans Benefits Books

New Years Resolution – Plan for Long Term Care
“According to some sources, 60% of us will need long term care sometime during our lives. It is important for all of us to prepare for that day when we will need to help loved ones with elder care or we will need elder care for ourselves.”
“It is simply a fact of life to prepare financially for unexpected disasters by covering our homes, automobiles and health with insurance policies and to provide funding for our retirement. But no other life event can be as devastating to our lifestyle, finances and security as needing long term care. It drastically alters or completely eliminates the three principal retirement dreams of elderly Americans, which are:
1. Remaining independent in the home without intervention from others 2. Maintaining good health and receiving adequate health care 3. Having enough money for everyday needs and not outliving assets and income
Yet, it is our experience that the majority of the American public does not plan for the devastating crisis of needing elder care. This lack of planning also has an adverse effect on the older person's family, with sacrifices made in time, money, family lifestyles and even affecting the family's or caregiver's medical and emotional health.” National Care Planning Council “ The 4 Steps of Long Term Care Planning”
Because of changing demographics and potential changes in government funding, the current generation -- more-than-ever -- needs to plan for long term care.
If you have spent time helping a parent or loved one cope with a disability resulting from aging, you know the frustration of balancing what you feel they need to do and what they want to do. Communication is strained at times, because after all, you are the child and they the parent, yet physically and mentally the rolls have changed.
When you make directives, assignments and arrangements in advance of needing elder care, then everyone involved can follow the prearranged care plan.
As an example, Jefferson Simpson wrote in his care plan that if dementia or Alzheimer's inhibited his mental abilities to communicate or recognize his surroundings, he wished to be in a respectable facility and only asked that he be visited and brought chocolates. To his children this request seemed silly at the time, but when his mental capacities did diminish, the instructions were there. No one had to wonder if they should try to take care of Father Jefferson at home and how they would do it. Without quilt or question they placed him in a respectable facility that took care of his needs. All they had to do was make loving visits, and of course they brought chocolates.
In order for Jefferson's simple request to happen, he had made financial, legal and personal long term care plans years before.
What do you want your children or friends to do on your behalf?
When it comes time for them to help, what if you can't say what you want because of a physical or mental disability? This is where a written long term care plan comes into effect.

Do you have a financial plan or long term care insurance? Retirement savings can disappear quickly when used for care services.

Where is your paperwork; insurance policies, living will, medical directives, Armed Services discharge or disability papers? Is there someone designated to know the location?

What are the legal documents that are needed for power of attorney, estate planning and disbursement of assets? When do they have to be completed?

What types of care services and facilities are available and what are the costs?

What will government programs pay for and how do you qualify?

There is a lot you can do now to put together a plan for your own long term care. You may have limited resources in the future or health problems that will inhibit your ability to take care of things you could do now. For example.

James and Cindy want to be able to stay in their home as they age. In order to do this, when they were in their 40's they took out a long term care insurance policy that will pay for home care if it is needed. The policy will also pay for nursing home costs as a care option. With taking the policy at a younger age and in good health the monthly payments are low. Extra funds can now be put away for retirement without worries of having to deplete savings for care costs.

Or consider Sarah's following experience:

After taking care of her own parents for many years, Sarah realized the importance of making, in advance, a plan and preparations for herself. She saw all of her parents' assets dissipated in order for her father to qualify for Medicaid nursing home coverage. She didn't want the same thing to happen to her. She took the time to create her own plan on paper-- expressing her wishes for her own care. A trip to her attorney provided all the legal documents and estate planning she wanted to be in place to insure care for her and an inheritance for her children.

There is much to learn about long term care and there are a lot of new services and programs available to draw from.

The National Care Planning Council has gathered together an overall review of government and private long term care services both on the Council website, and in their book The 4 Steps of Long Term Care Planning.
The 4 Steps of Long Term Care Planning provides comprehensive information about long term care planning. The design also allows you to record personal information, family agreements and directions on 20 planning sheets at the back of the book. Using this book as a single-source repository for information and directions makes it much easier for you or your care coordinator to carry out your wishes when the need for care occurs.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Generic Lawyer

Law is a business all about people. People often use the services of lawyers when they have some sort of crises, such as a lawsuit, bankruptcy, divorce, guardianship issue, or a DUI arrest. They also hire us on happy occasions such as when purchasing real estate or assisting in an adoption proceeding.

I guess then it should come as no surprise that other attorneys tell me that conventional advertising does not generate the bulk of their business. It seems it really is all about who you know. With that in mind, I have sent announcements to all of my nearest and dearest, in my family, and business community, to let them know that I am in business.

A former boss once told me to tell people that I am simply A LAWYER, because to say that you specialize in any one area could cost you valuable business. I agree, but it is only human nature to prefer or have a talent for a certain niche. My niche is Estate Planning & Elder Law. While I am happy to assist in a real estate closing or a simple Consumer Protection dispute, I find helping families to be very personally rewarding. It is also a constantly changing area of law, and each case presents a different challenge, particularly if you are dealing with difficult personalities in the family dynamic. (hmmm, that's a whole post in itself!) I guess I would say I lean toward Probate & Family Law, both because of my work history in that area, and because of my own inclination, but it's certainly not ALL I do..

Anyway, this issue of "what kind of lawyer are you?"came up this morning at a networking meeting that I had joined through The meeting itself was very productive, as I did meet several people whose business I or my clients certainly would need: Realtors, Financial Planners, a Counselor/Life Coach, etc.

In general, people don't really understand how I could do Criminal Defense and still write their mother's will (and health care proxy & power of attorney, because to neglect them would be malpractice, in my opinion). People do like to pigeon-hole one another, and I need to resist doing that to myself. I like the idea of doing a little bit of everything, while sub-specializing in what I know best.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Happy New Year!

I think it fitting that my inaugural post coincides with the new year, and good riddance to 2008! This blawg (slang for law blog) will record my journey in the establishment of my solo law practice.
While I had always wanted to open my own practice some day, circumstances sort of dropped me into the road a bit sooner than I had planned for; but then, who could have counted on anything in 2008? And so I find myself renting a little office in my small hometown, and looking forward to the journey ahead.

I found it helpful to read other blawgs over the past couple of years, while I had planned my own practice, and those blawgs will be noted here. The information I amassed has been a great help to me. There are myriad decisions as to practice location, marketing, software, choice of rental situations, office equipment, etc., not to mention what type of law to specialize in. Although I have a strong base of experience in Estates & Trusts, which encompasses probate, guardianships, and Medicaid planning, I realize that as a new business I will need to diversify, in order to remain afloat.

I am sharing office spaces with several other attorneys, and I find I both need and enjoy the company, the mentoring of more experienced attorneys, and the general ambiance of a "law firm" feel, without actually having a boss. I have been pleasantly surprised by the offers of support, in both time and materials, from other solos. My challenge will be to grow and maintain a practice in which I hope to establish a rewarding and fulfilling practice and a positive work/life balance. It helps that I like people, and I love helping people.

My background in Estate Planning is a good foundation for a specialization in Elder Law (mainly Medicaid Planning). My most rewarding professional experiences stem from helping those who are least powerful, and assisting families in times of crises. To that end, I will be presenting seminars on related Estate Planning and Elder Law topics. I will also post here various articles and information that people might find helpful.

Here's to a better, brighter New Year!