Why I do what I do

Why am I an estate planning and elder law attorney?

I guess it starts with why I’m a lawyer. The simple answer to that is: I knew I would be good at it. I knew it would be an important job, one where I could make a difference in people’s lives. And I knew it would be intellectually challenging. I decided to become a lawyer when I was just a high school senior, and it was a fairly easy decision. It just made sense.

The more intriguing question is why I chose to practice estate planning and elder law. I only came to it some years after law school. In my first years as a lawyer I did some appellate law, legal research, juvenile law, and criminal law. Then I had a 6-month stint as an attorney editor, editing legal books for the State Bar of Wisconsin. It was the closest thing I’d found to a true fit. I loved working on books. I loved the minutiae of editing and the big thinking of developing products. But before long I was driven back to private practice. I needed the earning potential to pay back mortgage-level student loans and support a family on a single income, and I found the corporate environment stifling.

That’s when an elder law attorney in my town sought me out and offered me a job as his first associate. I took the opportunity. I had always sensed that estate planning and elder law would suit me as a practice area. It doesn’t require much going to court or arguing with other lawyers—just good advice and drafting legal documents. I don’t have a problem with litigation, but I think my temperament is more suited to the role of counselor and advisor than that of advocate. And I knew this practice area had earning potential and would directly help families.

Looking back, I always had the idea that I’d be the kind of lawyer that works with families. My own family was deeply affected by the work of good lawyers, and that sort of impact on people’s lives was a big part of what attracted me to the profession. In law school, I took classes on family law, estate planning, guardian ad litem practice, and elder law. My final semester of classes looked tailor-made for a future elder law attorney. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion—I also immensely enjoyed appellate research and writing, and for a while after I graduated I pursued that. Then I got the chance to learn elder law, and I saw that it could combine my passion for editing and writing with my desire to do meaningful work for families. I took the opportunity and stepped onto my present path.

That’s how I got started. Then, after a year and a half, I decided to leave that elder law firm and start my own practice. Why?

I will always be grateful to the firm that gave me my start in elder law, and I enjoyed working with the people there. But I came to be bothered by the business model and the quality of legal work. The business model depended, like many elder law firms, on selling very expensive estate plans with asset protection trusts and helping clients use Medicaid to pay for their long-term care. This was complicated legal work. Yet we spent little time customizing plans for each client; they all turned out nearly identical. I thought the legal documents themselves, though functional, could be vastly improved. Medicaid proved a tricky beast to rely on. And clients never seemed to understand what they were getting into.

When I started meeting with potential clients on my own, I would carefully explain the pros and cons of asset protection planning and whether it made sense with the potential client’s goals. It rarely did. “Asset protection” sounds great, but it turned out that few people were willing to give up the control and ownership of their hard-earned property that is required for it. I began to see that my approach with clients was not compatible with the “protect your stuff from the nursing home” business model.

I wasn’t sure the legal work was worth the fee, and I wasn’t sure it was really making people’s lives better in the end. I wanted to do good, simple work for the same sort of family I came from: hard-working, caring, and of modest means. To do that, I would have to strike out on my own. And while I was at it, I thought nearly everything about traditional estate planning and elder law could be improved.

Nearly two years later, here I am doing good, simple, affordable work that makes a difference for families just like mine. Why do I do what I do? It’s because, through my journey as a lawyer, I’ve come to believe a number of things:

  • I believe I can make a difference in people’s lives by practicing good, simple estate planning and elder law. My work saves families from bureaucracy in times of crisis and grief.
  • I believe that’s what estate planning and elder law should be all about—avoiding bureaucracy and making things simple and easy.
  • I believe traditional estate planning and elder law are too complicated and too expensive.
  • I believe good health care and good relationships are more important than money.
  • I believe asset protection is not for everyone.

Because I believe these things, I started my own estate planning and elder law practice. I started it to help families like mine. I started it to make estate planning simpler, easier, and less expensive. I started it to do things differently and to make a difference in people’s lives.

What is asset protection?

When it comes to nursing homes and Medicaid, you often hear about “asset protection.” It’s a hot topic—who wouldn’t want to protect their assets? But asset protection is complex, and if something goes wrong your finances and your family could be in a lot of trouble.

Protecting an asset means giving up control.

At its core, asset protection means one thing: transferring legal control of your property to another person. It’s called protection because once you give up your legal right to an asset, you can’t be forced to pay it to your creditors—including hospitals, nursing homes, and the state itself. In other words, the asset is protected. Since so many people—about one third of the elderly—end up paying their entire savings to medical creditors for long-term care, finding a way to protect those savings is attractive. Even though it means giving up your own right to use them.

Note: There’s an important exception to protecting your assets by giving them away. You can’t do it to avoid a debt your currently owe. That’s fraud. Asset protection is all about planning ahead.

Asset protection usually involves an irrevocable trust.

So the idea of asset protection is to transfer legal ownership of your property now before you end up having to pay for long-term care later. The simplest way of doing this is to just give your assets to someone else. You might give your property to a trusted family member, who informally agrees to hold onto the money and give it back to you if you need it. In doing this, though, you give up all legal right to the property. The person you give it to could spend it all on a luxurious vacation. They could also be forced to pay it towards their own debts.

For these reasons, an outright gift is risky. But there’s another way to protect your assets while retaining some control: using an irrevocable asset protection trust. An elder law attorney can create a trust to hold your property under your own terms. You get to make the rules for who gets the property, when, and how.

The cornerstone of an asset protection trust is that you and your spouse cannot retain the right to use the property yourselves. But you can retain the right to say who else gets to use the property, and when. These other people (usually your family) are your beneficiaries.

Usually these trusts are designed to prevent the trust property from being used at all until you and your spouse die. The property isn’t just protected, it’s preserved. This is important because you might still need to dissolve the trust and take back the property.

Even an irrevocable trust can be undone.

But isn’t this trust irrevocable? Yes, but there’s still a legal procedure for dissolving it and distributing its assets—you just can’t do it alone. Doing this requires the consent of all beneficiaries of the trust. Those beneficiaries are probably your children or other family members. It’s a cumbersome procedure that should be done with an attorney and only in an emergency, but it can be done.

Why would you need to dissolve the trust and undo your asset protection? Perhaps an emergency depletes your other savings sooner than expected. Or you need to apply for Medicaid within five years of creating the trust.

Asset protection means divestment.

When you put property into an asset protection trust, you are divesting it. That means if you apply for Medicaid within five years, you’ll have to pay a penalty. But you can “cure” the divestment if the property is given back to you. Again, this requires the cooperation of your beneficiaries.

Asset protection always means giving up your legal right to use assets for your own benefit. That means asset protection always creates a divestment for Medicaid. If not done carefully, you could end up unable to pay for the care you need and ineligible for Medicaid. You do not want to be in that situation.

That’s why you need an elder law attorney to create an effective plan for asset protection. Only an attorney can look at your entire situation and ensure you are provided for, no matter what happens.

What is a trust, exactly?

“Do I need a trust?” It’s about the most common question I get. Trusts are one of the most complicated, confusing, and misunderstood pieces of estate planning. In this and following articles, I’m going to break them down and make trusts simple. First up: taking a step back to talk about what a trust is.

A simple trust

Most people think a trust is essentially a bank account. It holds property; you can put property in and take it out. That’s true in some ways, but a trust is much more than a box that holds property. Legally speaking, a trust is a set of relationships between property and people.

To illustrate, imagine:

  • You’ve taken your family to the county fair.
  • Your 8-year-old son is about to go play some games, supervised by your teenage daughter.
  • You’ve budgeted $20 for each child to spend during the outing.

You probably wouldn’t hand your 8-year-old $20 and trust he’ll spend it well. You’d probably hand it to your daughter with instructions to make sure it isn’t spent all in one place or too quickly, and to make sure there’s enough left over to buy lunch. You would say you’ve trusted your daughter with that money. You might tell her, quite naturally, “I’m trusting you with this.” It’s only for her little brother, but she is in control of how and when it is spent. She holds that $20 in trust for her brother.

That’s a simple trust. The trust is not just the $20—it’s also the special relationship between that $20, your daughter, and your son.

There’s a legal term for each person involved. You are the grantor, because the money was originally yours and you are the one entrusting it to someone else and giving them instructions. Your teenage daughter is the trustee, because she’s the one who possesses the money and must follow your instructions about how and when and for whom it is spent. Your young son is the beneficiary, because this whole arrangement is for his benefit.

diagram of a simple trust
A simple trust.

You have more power over your property than you think

It helps to understand that when you create a trust, you are exercising your legal rights as owner of your property in a different way than normal.

Most of the time, we think that owning property means one thing: it’s mine and I can do what I want with it. You can go a little deeper, though, and think about all the things you can do with it. For example, let’s say you are the proud and fortunate owner of an apple. You own it, sure, but what does that mean? What can you do with that ownership? Well, you can:

  • Control where the apple is, physically (in your hands, for example, or in your cupboard)
  • Eat the apple
  • Feed the apple to your child
  • Plant the apple seeds
  • Throw the apple in the garbage
  • Give the apple to someone else

Think of each of these things as a different legal right you have as owner. The thing is, owning the apple is not an all-or-nothing game. You can divvy up these rights and uses and give them to different people. You can just hand the entire apple to someone else, sure. But you could also cut it in half and keep some for yourself. You could take the seeds out first and give them to a different person. You could hand the apple to your friend to keep safe for you while you go take a swim.

Think of ownership as a bunch of separate rights over the property. These rights, such as the right to possess and the right to use, can be separated by creating a trust.

In the same way, when you create a trust, you’re dividing the different rights to your property and giving them to different people. You’re giving the right to possess and manage the property to your trustee, and you’re giving the right to use and enjoy the property to your beneficiary.

Of course, it gets a little more complicated than that. When you give these different rights to different people, you also have to create some rules about what each person can and cannot do with the property. Does the trustee get paid for the job? Can your beneficiary use the trust money to buy a luxury car? You might want to answer these questions.

Trusts are about the future

In fact, the great benefit of a trust is it allows you to set the rules and control how your property is going to be used and managed far into the future. Most of us only think about our property in the here and now, making decisions about how to invest it or manage it or spend it as they come. In fact, we all have the creative power to set legally enforceable rules and relationships between our property and the people we love.

Why would you want to do that? I’ll answer that question in future articles. In short, though, you create a trust because you want to set your own rules for who is going to control your property and how it is going to be used in the future. You want to do that because it will protect or help your family. Because, as with our example of the county fair, sometimes handing over a wad of cash is not the best way to do it.

A simple manifesto

Sir Ernest Gowers wrote Plain Words, a guide for the British Civil Service on how to write to members of the public. That is, he was telling bureaucrats how to “explain the law to the millions.” He gave three elementary rules:

  1. Be short.
  2. Be simple.
  3. Be human.

Later in the book, he added a fourth:

  1. Be correct.

I’ve never seen better guidewords for anyone whose job is to help ordinary people with law and the government. That’s not just those who work for a government agency, but also attorneys.

Sadly, both government workers and attorneys are often bad at following Gowers’s advice. We take 50 words to say what could be said in 10. We use legal jargon when plain English would work better. We write and speak like robots or Vulcans. We make ourselves difficult to understand.

I think we should change that. Short, simple, human, correct—when I do a will, trust, or Medicaid application, that’s what I want my client’s experience to be. In elder law, things often do become long and complicated. But I think my role as an attorney is to take a complicated legal task and make it as simple for my client as I can.

Here’s an example. Most estate planning done by lawyers takes one or two months and several in-person meetings to complete. These meetings can pack a lot into just one or two hours. A client might be asked to make many decisions in quick succession. It’s easy to succumb to decision fatigue.

Can’t we find a better way? A way to have fewer and maybe shorter meetings? A way to educate clients and give them time to make good decisions? A way to make the estate planning process less of a hassle?

I haven’t figured it out yet. But I want to. I have some ideas that are worth trying. Because whatever the status quo is, it’s not short, simple, or human. And it’s not working—most Americans have little or no estate planning in place.

Talking about simple, that’s one thing Medicaid is not. It’s a huge and complicated government program, which many people depend on for long-term care. I can’t make Medicaid simple. I can’t change the rules or get my clients through some loophole that magically solves everything. But I can make it simpler. I can make it less complicated for my clients.

I wish the world operated on Gowers’s rules. I wish wills, trusts, and Medicaid applications were all short, simple, human, and correct—they are often none of those things. I think my job—and the job of everyone who works in estate planning or elder law—is to bring as much brevity, simplicity, humanity, and accuracy as I can to my work.