June 2010 Archives

"You Give Lawyers a Good Name"

June 28, 2010,

By Michael Ettinger, Esq.

me consult.jpgReflecting on this comment made to us by a client recently, the following thoughts came to mind. What do we actually do at Ettinger Law Firm?

All we do is save our clients a lot of time, many thousands of dollars and the not so petty annoyances they might otherwise have in settling their family's affairs on the death of a loved one. We help them reduce or eliminate taxes on the estate so that more passes down to help their children and grandchildren. These days, we also protect the inheritances our clients leave so that it is not lost should the heirs get sued or divorced and, better yet, we assure them that their wishes will carry on for decades after they are gone, by passing the inheritance on to their grandchildren one day. Should disability occur, our clients have had their assets protected years earlier through asset protection planning. For many who come to us in their hour of need, without preparation, we take on the burden of helping them through the Medicaid maze and help them save and protect much more of their assets than they ever thought possible.

On the planning side, we talk to our clients about their hopes and dreams, despairs and disappointments. Then we craft a plan to reflect the client's life and lifestyle, taking into great consideration the needs and feelings of the heirs and how it will be received. We are thoughtful to avoid unintentionally hurting loved ones and creating rifts between them with well intentioned, but ultimately misguided, gifts and bequests.

Yet none of the above good works were what the client was referring to with her causal remark that "you give lawyers a good name". We also hold three to four seminars for the public each week where we invite hundreds of people to dinner at our expense and explain all they need to know about elder law and estate planning, providing professionally prepared materials for them to take home and study. We maintain a 150 page website for their further research and review, together with an online video seminar to watch if they wish.

Then we invite every person, regardless of their means, to come into our offices and spend up to an hour with us, free of charge, where we share the vast knowledge, experience and insights we have gleaned in over twenty years of exclusive practice in this area. We also analyze and critique their current planning, letting them know where they stand, what to do and why.

Finally, we advise countless people each day, week, month and year that they do not need our services, that they are fine for the time being with the plan they have and can afford to wait, when they would be better off doing their planning with another firm, and then refer them to one with more expertise in solving their particular issues. For clients who do need us, we search for ways to achieve their goals with the least expense possible.

Clients see that we derive as much satisfaction from telling them that they are fine, that they do not require our services, as we do when our services are needed. Clients see that we are just happy that they took the time to come in to see us. And when clients see that we are on their side, that our true purpose is to serve them without regard to ourselves, then they say "you give lawyers a good name".

Singles and Couples Without Children - The Lawyer as co-Trustee

June 14, 2010,

by Michael Ettinger, Esq.singlewoman.gif

Previously we wrote about the lawyer as co-trustee in the second marriage setting. The main concern there was to protect the share and the interests of the deceased spouse and their family. This was a situation ideally suited for the lawyer as trustee due to inadequate protection if one of the surviving spouse's children acts as co-trustee, and the inevitable conflict that arises if one of the deceased spouse's children acts as co-trustee.

For singles and couples without children, the lawyer as co-trustee fulfills an entirely different function. In the couples setting, we are really referring to the issues that arise after the first spouse dies. From an estate planning point of view, couples without children ultimately have the same issues as singles.

So whether you are single now or eventually become one your key issue is not planning for death, not who you are leaving it to and certainly not having a will. Your key issue is planning for disability. Should you be unable, at some point, to handle your financial and legal affairs due to accident or illness, who will take over? If you don't have a strong plan for disability, which they say eventually happens to about half of all people, you are at considerable risk of having the wrong person or a stranger take over your affairs. In the event of disability, virtually anyone (hospital, doctor, lawyer, social worker, neighbor, relative, friend, etc.) may commence a proceeding to have a legal guardian appointed for you. Once you enter into this bureaucratic process, usually involuntarily, it is exceedingly difficult to extricate yourself and you lose precious control over your affairs. We often say you are only as strong as your back-up plan. If you have set up a living trust, you are in charge now, but the trust says who takes over in the event of disability. You get the person or persons you have chosen, not a court appointed legal guardian, along with the many thousands of dollars in costs that such proceedings entail.

So, who should you choose? Our advice is to choose two people. One a friend or relative who is willing to undertake the responsibility and then the lawyer as co-trustee. The lawyer will see to it that the trust is run properly and that all of your affairs are handled according to law. It takes a considerable amount of the anxiety, pressure and responsibility off of your friend or relative who has so kindly agreed to undertake this task. Further, you have two people signing off on all decisions, and everyone knows what two heads are better than. Not only is the possibility of a mistake being made greatly reduced, but it also eliminates the risk of misappropriation of assets. In some cases, where clients do not have a friend or relative available for this purpose or where they do not want to burden anyone with the responsibility, the lawyer may act as sole trustee.

New York trustee's fees, which only take effect when the trustee is called upon to act, are 1.05% of the first $400,000, .45% of the next $200,000 and .3% of any amounts over $600,000. So, for example, on a one million dollar trust, the trustee's commission would be $6,300.00 per year.

Perhaps the greatest insight your writer has gained in over thirty years of practicing law, is that planning for disability is more important than planning for death. The lawyer as co-trustee may be an invaluable asset to the childless person in the event of disability.

Second Marriage Planning - The Lawyer as Co-Trustee

June 7, 2010,

By Michael Ettinger, Esq.lawyer-as-trustee.gif

One of the situations that call for the lawyer to recommend himself as trustee is in second marriage planning.

It is a firmly established legal principal that there is no ethical prohibition against the attorney recommending himself to act as a trustee on behalf of a client or client's estate. And for good reason. In many situations the counselor can provide invaluable assistance that no one else is able or willing to provide.

In second marriage planning, we often recommend that the lawyer act as co-trustee on the death of the first spouse. While both are living and competent they naturally run their trust or trusts together. But when one spouse dies, what prevents the other spouse from taking all of the assets and diverting them to their own children? Nothing at all, if they alone are in charge. While most people are honorable, and many are certain their spouse would never do such a thing, strange things often happen later in life. A spouse may become forgetful, delusional or senile or may be influenced, sometimes unduly, by other parties. Not only that, but what are the children of the deceased spouse going to feel when they find out their stepmother is in charge of all of the couple's assets? They are going to imagine the worst case scenario and feel very insecure and possibly even hostile to the surviving spouse. As my esteemed professor of The Law of Trusts said to us over thirty years ago "you would be surprised by how fast the family glue becomes undone."

Now, if you choose one of the deceased spouse's children to act as co-trustee with the surviving spouse what have you done? Created a potential minefield. The biggest issue is the conflict that exists whereby the stepson may be reluctant to spend assets for the surviving spouse, because whatever is spent on her will come out of his ultimate share. Then what if she gets remarried? How will he react to that event? What if it turns out he liked her when his dad was with her, but not so much or not at all afterwards? These things happen, and often.

Here's where the lawyer as trustee may provide an ideal solution. When husband dies, the lawyer steps in as co-trustee with the wife. He helps her invest for her benefit as well as making sure the principal grows to offset inflation, for the benefit of the heirs.

Wife in this case takes care of all her business privately with her lawyer. The trusts cannot be raided. These protections may also be extended for IRA and 401(k) money passing to the spouse through the use of the "IRA Contract" pioneered by Ettinger Law Firm. Surviving spouse agrees ahead of time that she will make an irrevocable designation of both of the couple's children as beneficiaries when the IRA is left to her and further agrees that any withdrawals in excess of the required minimum distribution (RMD) may only be made on the consent of the lawyer.

What about the deceased spouse's children? When the trust terms are read they now feel very secure that the lawyer their father chose will continue on for the stepmother's lifetime, looking after and protecting their share of the assets. They are relieved by the protection that has been set up for them, have no animosity or concern about the stepmother's sole control of the assets and the relationship between the families continues smoothly and may even continue to grow and flourish. All because the lawyer took the time to explain the advantages to the client and was willing to shoulder the responsibility that acting as trustee entails.

A word about trustee's fees. Trustee fees in New York are 1.05% of the first $400,000, .45% of the next $200,000 and .3% of any amounts over $600,000. So, for example, on a one million dollar trust, the trustee's commission would be $6,300.00 per year. These fees take effect only on the death of the first spouse, when the lawyer as trustee is called upon to act.

As you can see, having the lawyer step in for the deceased spouse can help both of the spouse's families avoid a world of trouble after the first spouse dies.