How NOT to work with your estate planning attorney
I think that I get along with most people. Exceptions seem to include people who treat my children poorly, or basketball coaches who forget how to talk to me when I referee basketball. Other than that, and a few people who seem to not like my sense of humor, I think I do pretty well at getting along with people, including those for whom I do legal work. I often tell people that they should work with an attorney they like, as all attorneys need to have a basic level of competence to practice, and we all like working with pleasant people. Having said that, there are a few ways to get on my bad side, so that we will both dislike each other after we work together.
I am NOT responsible to make your decisions for you.
One of the quickest ways to upset me is to ask me to make important decisions for you, as if you are incapable of making decisions yourself. I think that perhaps most people who ask me what the best way is to do something, or who want to have me make a decision have a slight misunderstanding of how the estate planning process works. I think there are a couple of ways this plays itself out.
First, I think many people believe that the law is some sort of checklist with a specific rule that covers every situation. People seem to believe that attorneys know these rules and will apply those rules to every situation. I can tell someone suffers from this misunderstanding when they ask me what the law says about a situation with oddly specific facts, or some obscure situation that may or may not come up..
The law, especially estate planning law, is not so rigid that every possible situation has a rule that will cover exactly what should happen. Someone who thinks this is the case leads me to know that I need to explain how estate planning law has some hard and fast rules, like the formal requirements for signing, witnessing, and notarizing documents, but for the most part, there are general principles of law that apply to situations and circumstances. If you stick to the one rule for every situation mentality, we may not get along.
A second possibility that people believe there is only one way to do things. My wife is not great at sayings; she botches them all the time…as an example: she once told me she would be killing five birds with two stones, and I responded, “is there a bush involved?” Several years ago her boss used the expression “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” She was horrified, wondering what the poor cat did to get skinned, why she wanted to kill the cat, and she could not understand why her boss would use such a terrible expression. I explained to her that the expression meant that there was more than one way to accomplish a task, or more than one way to approach a problem.
People who ask me what the best way is to set up an estate plan seem to have a misunderstanding of this concept. I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of a particular approach to an estate plan, and give options, but I cannot explain what the one best option, as only one does not exist. I need to work with you to figure out what is best for you. If you don’t want to work with me to find your best option, we also may not get along.
No, I do NOT know why your brother-in-law said that.
Many people come to see me with preconceived notions about what they need to do. Generally, a family member told them something, or they looked at a website that gave information that does not truly apply to the person.
I had a client who asked me about creating a document that would create a life estate for their parent. They wanted to do this because they read on a website that doing so could be helpful. I explained that a life estate could be useful in certain situations, but that if the parent held a life estate, that the life estate would not protect their asset from Medicaid, and therefore would not provide the protection they were looking to create.
Stunned silence ensued, followed by the question, “Well, what can we do instead?” I gave them a range of options, and we discussed which one was best suited for their situation and their purposes. This stands in contrast to the potential client who challenged me after I explained that what his brother-in-law told him was not 100% correct, “Why would my brother-in-law say that? Are you saying he is stupid? Do you think you are better than him?” I was unaware that giving correct information carried such implications against someone I did not know and had never met. But, the potential client was convinced that I needed to explain what his brother-in-law was thinking and why he said what he did, as if I am a mind reader of some sort…we did not end up working together.
I promise we will answer that question, just NOT right now.
Other times someone will demand an answer from me that needs context, or that is better explained after we cover a different concept that builds up to the question asked. Estate planning concepts and end of life planning concepts can be difficult to grasp. I understand that. I have an order that I explain thing, and an order of questions that I follow, which I have found helps explain things in a manner that is easy to understand; a system that builds on itself and answers many questions as we go through the system.
Having said that, my system is not the way in which all people would learn. If someone wants to jump ahead and discuss something that is coming up later, I will sometimes answer the question and adjust my questions to reflect that we already covered that topic. Other times, I will let someone know that we will get to that question, and I will point out when I get to the topic later in the conversation, just to make sure I have answered the question.
My system is based on what I have learned about presenting concepts that build on each other, and someone who insists that I answer all questions in the order they want may disrupt the flow of information and communication which is vital to a successful estate plan. I am definitely flexible enough to answer your questions, it may just not be in the order you ask them…sometimes even for good reason!
If getting an immediate answer to a question better answered in a different time or manner is vital to you, we may not work well together.
No, I am NOT saying we should NOT work together.
OK, maybe I kind of am saying that, but only if you are inflexible, combative, and don’t want what is best for you…in that case we may not be a good fit. If, however, you are NOT like that and you understand that making your own decision and finding what is best for you is what you want, then we should work together. You might even confuse me for a person who has a heart and a soul, after all, I am an attorney, so I don’t have those, right? If you want to figure out what is best for you, please schedule an appointment and let’s find a way to work together…instead of NOT.