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How I Fell in Love with Estate Planning: 2 Life-Changing Encounters

When I entered Law School, I don’t think I knew that there was a practice area called “Estate Planning”.  When I first heard of the area, I definitely didn’t think it sounded interesting.  It didn’t have the slick appeal of Personal Injury law or the grit of Family Law.  It definitely didn’t have the interesting stories that you find in criminal law…or so I thought.  I entered law school with every intention of becoming a criminal prosecutor.  I couldn’t wait to put away the bad guys and ensure that justice was served.  If that didn’t work, I thought maybe I would get into adoption law or even real estate development.

Once in law school, I learned that Criminal Law was interesting and there were great stories, but the idea of diving headlong into the darkest parts of our society daily quickly wore on me.  I realized that working in that area long term might not be the happiest career path or the best for family life.  I also knew I didn’t want to be a Family Law attorney as I had seen enough divorce and destruction in my own family growing up and living that daily as a professional just didn’t seem like much fun.

As I started my final year of law school, I had no idea what area I would practice in long term.  At this point, I had gained a little bit of courtroom experience through the clinical program at St. Mary’s.  However, that only introduced me to Social Security law and a couple minor criminal matters.  I had never worked in a law firm or really seen what life would be like for a lawyer.  Although, I had watched a lot of lawyers in the movies.  I dreamed of being thrust into some blockbuster case fresh out of law school like Matt Damon in John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker” or arguing to take down a corrupt company polluting the earth like John Travolta in “A Civil Action”.  I didn’t quite know where I would end up, but I was ready to give it a try.

I eventually did land a job in a small firm during my third year of law school.  The primary practice area was “Estate Planning.”  I thought to myself, “Well, you’ve gotta start somewhere.”  It is there that I met two clients that changed my perspective and opened my eyes to a new world.

The first client was a gentleman that we will call Mike.  Mike was in his early 60s.  He had been a very successful businessman, but now was stuck in a wheelchair, unable to walk, unable to feed himself and unable speak on his own.  Mike came to our firm for help as he was dealing with unpaid parent loans that he had taken out of his daughter.  The government was trying to collect on their debt.  While the loans typically would have been forgiven due to disability, he, unfortunately, received his initial diagnosis of ALS two weeks before taking the loan out.  What struck me about Mike was his desire to communicate with me. Up to this point, I had very little contact with people who had severe disabilities.  As we sat there in the initial meeting, Mike’s wife gave a narrative history of the problem at hand, but Mike kept gesturing and talking through his assisted device.  He had to type every letter and then the machine would speak for him.  I quickly realized that we needed to slow down and make sure he was included in the conversation rather than letting his wife answer all the questions.  This experience inspired me to always make sure that I take the time to give a voice to those who are often overlooked or ignored.  Although Mike was severely disabled, he was still very much a person with a desire to be heard.  My practice has developed into one that spends a lot of time focusing on the Special Needs Community and making sure there are plans in place to help the disabled person still have a voice in their own care and be cared for with dignity.  I credit Mike with starting my career in this direction.

The second client I met was an elderly lady we will call Gloria.  When Gloria came to us she was 88-years-old.  She had two adult disabled children that were both in their 40s.  Her son was now living in a group home because she couldn’t control his penchant for being a kleptomaniac.  He would stuff his pockets with candy and anything else he could fit anytime he walked into a store.  Gloria’s daughter was as sweet as anyone you ever met.  However, she had Down’s Syndrome and would need someone to provide care for her lifetime.  At 88-years-old, Gloria was just finally beginning to face the idea that she might not be there to care for her kids for the remainder of their lives.  This was my first experience with true “Estate Planning”.  We needed to create a plan that would allow Gloria to have some peace as she contemplated having someone else care for her children.  We were able to walk her through both creating trusts for her children as well as working with her son-in-law to take over her children now so that she could slowly turn over the reins on her terms rather than waiting until there was an emergency need.  As I watched Gloria, I learned how difficult these decisions can be for some, but also how much relief comes over the person once they know there is a good plan in place.  I often joke that I am a professional weight lifter as I feel it is my job to take the weight of worry off my client’s shoulders.

Both situations left me with a greater appreciation of how important planning is.  To my surprise, this practice area has plenty of excitement. My favorite part is I get to know families and become part of their extended family. One of my most cherished moments is attending a client’s funeral and watching as The Patriot Guard escorted the family in.  I am often called on for advice as new exciting endeavors come up in families.  I get to watch and be part of families as they change and grow.  I get to create lifelong friendships and help families have some security.  Most importantly, I go to a job I love every day.  I love the job because I get to help families really make a difference in their lives.  I help families achieve peace.