Saturday, November 8, 2008

Part IV: How to get help

How do you find a qualified person to help you with your animal trust? I have no clue. The usual methods will not work here. The laws are new so years of experience, specialization qualifications, or even word of mouth may not help. In addition, the best person to help you with your trust may not be the best all around person to help you with your other legal needs. I think, and I could be wrong here, but if you have read these posts and read the links provided you should have enough information to test any potential professionals on their knowledge. If they claim expertise they should know at least what has been posted here.

Lawyers are hard to deal with sometimes. I am a lawyer, but even I’ll admit getting a straight answer from us is hard sometimes. Everyone expects us to know everything and if we honestly say “I don’t know” then clients get worried we are not good enough. In my personal life I love to hear “I don’t know, but let me find out”. I like it much better then some canned answer or a pat on the head and a tisk tisk don’t worry your little head about that. I would not rule out help from someone who knows nothing but is willing to learn.

You might try looking for an equine or animal lawyer, but they might not have any expertise or experience in estate planning. So you move on to experienced estate planning lawyers and they have no clue about animals. While there is a growing number of attorneys who have blended their love of animals and their law careers into a practice, they are few and far between. Most animal lawyers concentrate on litigation, contracts, and insurance. They do not do estate planning. Nor should they be expected to be masters of all trades. And what if you really want your long time attorney to write your trust because you respect him and have always used him? Do you dump him just because its not something he has done before? Maybe, maybe not.

Your lawyer may be able to refer you to the right person for the job and work together with that lawyer to develop an entire estate plan that takes care of your animals and everything else. Your lawyer may be of the inquisitive and diligent breed and will tell you he does not know how to do that but will learn. Be aware, lawyers can not charge for the time it takes them to learn a new skill, so if your lawyer tells you its not worth it for him to learn he is not being rude—he means it's not worth so many non-billable hours to learn a skill that he might only be using once. In fact, if this happens you are lucky. You have a good, honest lawyer there.

The opposite is the lawyer who takes very case and every client just based on the legal principal of Res Ipsa Retainer. If you pay, they will do it. They wont bother to do it well or read the case law or look at the changes in the laws, but they will take the $900 software program on trusts they bought and plug in animal everywhere it should say child and charge you for it. You will never know if their work is any good or not because by the time you need it, you will have passed away. Ask then how many years experience they have and do not accept an answer that INCLUDES the combined years of all the non-lawyers in the office. Paralegals rock, but they do not do the kind of work that requires trained legal thinking. They do all the other work that lawyers are useless at like filling out the forms and knowing how to file what where. No lawyer should claim to have 20 years experience based on the fact their paralegal has been doing it that long.

So what do you do??? Start calling around to estate planning experts—and this is a specialty that does have certification—and ask then if they do honorary trusts for animals. On the first round just pass over anyone who says “What?” If you can’t find anyone them move on to animal lawyers who may do estate work and ask them how many years experience they have with estate planning above and beyond that CD that spits out canned trusts. Still no luck? Then google.

Remember, you can shop in a much wider range for a trust then you can for most other legal services. You are not limited to just your state. Your trust can be in the state where you find expert help. That’s a gift. You don’t have to chose between the only 2 lawyers in your small, rural town. Just sever the honorary trust from the rest for your estate planning and find the BEST lawyer for your needs. That lawyer can work with your regular counsel to seamlessly incorporate an honorary trust into your overall estate plan.

Your lawyer can even hire outside counsel to advise her. Its OK for lawyers to pay other lawyers for advice across state lines with your consent, its just not OK for lawyers to charge clients for work in states where they are not licensed to practice. Your main goal is to get the best trust you can that is personalized for your needs and your tax status and will hold up in a court in your state or to get the best state to have a trust in and hire that lawyer. Remember, creating a team is your best bet. If your lawyer is not a team player then she can spend the time to learn all about animal trusts and expand her practice, but just trying to force the facts for a human trust onto animals will not work.

How do you know what to ask a prospective attorney? In most cases you wont have to worry about that. You will get stuck talking to a receptionist or a paralegal whose sole purpose in life seems to be to keep clients and potential clients from actually talking to the lawyer. They may or may not be aware that their employer has been studying honorary trusts and they do not want to be bothered with you asking. I know I sound bitter and little bitchy, but when i have to refer cases out due to conflicts or lack of expertise, I usually end up trying to convince some receptionist that I am not trying to sell the lawyer anything, I just want to give them a client. Its like running the gauntlet and not much fun.

So these are my personal tips for picking a good lawyer from among strangers. DO judge a firm by the employees you talk to. You will be talking to them more then the attorney so they better be helpful, intelligent and not try and scare you away. If an attorney cannot control the employees or is unaware of how they treat clients then move on. I am not saying the attorney should be free to talk to you any time you call, but the receptionist should not be giving you her legal opinion or think you are a loon for asking about something she has never heard of.

DO NOT judge a lawyer by the size of their yellow pages ad. Some of the best lawyers do not even need ads. They get more then enough business from word of mouth or a small ad. There is a rule that says a lawyer cannot claim to “specialize” in anything that does not have an official specialization credential. Very few lawyers have these credentials in more then one field. If you see a huge yellow page ad that lists 10 specializations and 1 or 2 lawyers then move on. They have not bothered to read the rules of ethics so they are not worthy of your trust. Ditto for firms with 1 lawyer who say & associates or “our lawyers” Its misleading and forbidden. They can’t follow their own rules so they wont take the time to research your needs. Lastly, if they can’t tell you if your initial appointment will cost money or is free move on. Don’t judge on whether it costs money, but do judge on the inability to tell you the costs up front. It will only go downhill from there.

ASK about experience and if they claim to be animal experts make sure they are of the same mind as you are. A person who breeds fugly untrained, uncared for animals in their back yards is not an expert just because they have been doing it for 20 years. Do they show? Do they have the same standards of care that you do? Do they understand your animals are more then just personal property to you? Its important that when you say “you know what I mean” that they actually do. That can be too much or too little care. You may mean retirement pasture with little extra care and they may mean full board with daily homeopathic therapy and weekly shakra adjustments. Owning pets and knowing about the pet care industry are not the same.

DO NOT judge quality on price. The world is changing. Many lawyers now have home office and can provide superior services without charging you and arm and a leg on overhead expenses. While a huge office full of antiques and oriental rugs is impressive, do you really need to pay an extra $200 an hour to be impressed? Most success in the field of law comes from excellent marketing. Excellent marketing is not a sure sign of an excellent legal mind. It is a sign of an excellent marking mind. Lawyers are expensive, no doubt about that, but a home based or part-time lawyer then passes savings on to you is just as good as a lawyer that charges you a fortune because he has to spend his time bringing in new clients to be impressed with the decorators taste. The days of picking a lawyer based on how much they can impress the opponent are gone too. We all grew up watching David and Goliath law shows on TV and we have been tainted with the expectation that good layering comes in all size firms. Picking a firm because they employ 300 lawyers is not going to guarantee you anything. In fact, it may mean your work is done by a first year associate and billed at the rate of his managing partner.

FIND a lawyer you can talk top and work with. If you want your accountant to be part of the process, that should not bother your lawyer. If you want an expert to be part of the process, that should not bother your lawyer. It should not be seen as an insult or doubting their skills. It should be seen as the way medicine is run—experts in each field work on getting you healthy under the supervision of one generalist. A healthy estate plan that includes animals may take more then one lawyer to have it thrive and survive in the hostile world of greedy heirs and fickle judges. Just like your Vet and farrier and trainer all must work together for the best performance out of your horse, sometimes a tax expert and an animal expert and an estate expert should work together to make sure all goes smoothly after you are gone. That piece of paper, that trust, must do all for your animals that you would yourself after you are gone. Take the time to make sure its right.

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