Estate planning is essentially a legal method to protect assets and pass them along to family members in the most amicable and financially feasible way possible. Without an estate plan, the elderly and their loved ones could face immense frustration, stress and perhaps hostility toward each other when the state steps in to devise such documents as a will or guardianship.
In addition, the constant changes in state and federal regulations could affect how a client protects his or her assets. As a result, it’s probably more important than ever to get an estate plan...clients are more likely to receive more tailored service from a law firm that specializes in estate plans and elder law...
Estate planning involves more than strategizing and preparing documents, such as a will, power of attorney, deed, advanced directive, guardianship or trust. It also is about discovering who the client is and his or her family relationships. In other words, paralegals and attorneys need to focus not only on the legal issues regarding their elderly clients but also on the clients’ personal issues...
"Understanding family dynamics is the key to handling an elder client’s needs," said Karen Walsh, a paralegal for 18 years who works for The Law Offices of Geraldine E. Champion in Grover Beach, Calif. The firm has specialized in elder law for 12 years.
According to Walsh, siblings usually have different needs and sometimes second-guess each other or the client’s attorney on decisions affecting the elderly client. "That can create confusion, mistrust and family feuds, " she said. "It can lead to posthumous feuds which waste scarce estate assets. Families may never be the same. Good estate planning can avoid breaking families apart forever."
As a result, paralegals in Champion’s law office are trained to identify the family "black sheep" – someone who, according to Walsh, "typically is a spendthrift, can’t hold on to money, an alcoholic, drug addict, a little larcenous, or suffered multiple sad divorces, bankruptcies, [or] property foreclosures."
"One of the primary roles for paralegals in estate planning is to meet with the clients to try and help attorneys determine their situation."
"In elder law, we need to know who the black sheep is and the majority of families have one," Walsh said. "The answer to the black sheep question tells us who should not be trustee of the parent’s trust or agent under durable power of attorney. We want to offer clients the peace of mind that comes from naming someone they trust in the event they are incapacitated and cannot handle their own financial affairs," Walsh added.
By talking to elderly clients and their relatives and paying attention to family dynamics, paralegals at Champion law firm play an integral role in helping clients on elder law matters.
"One of the primary roles for paralegals in estate planning is to meet with the clients to try and help attorneys determine their situation," Walsh said. "The paralegal will help verify assets, discover who the key family members are and try to determine who the client trusts the most in naming a trustee," she said.
"We encourage our clients to be truthful and share even painful stories about their family so that we may fully understand the dynamics and work to avoid a family fight after the parents pass away," Walsh said. "The most valuable asset that we can pass is family harmony. By having an attorney and paralegal in every consultation, the paralegal is able to focus on the family dynamics, listen for clues about a potential black sheep family member client, [and] tune in to how tired the caregiver really is and not the brave face they put on so as to not burden [the] children. The attorney is free to work the case."
Although the attorney drafts the case documents, according to Walsh, "the paralegal is in on the case reviews the draft and supervised the document signing." The paralegal also will assist the clients "with the intake documents, reviewing the information with the clients, signing the trust [pouring] over wills, deeds, powers of attorney for assets and health care." Paralegals in estate planning can rely multiple listservs through websites such as www.specialneedsalliance.org or www.elderlawalliance.com.
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Geraldine E. Champion, Attorney at Law The Law Offices of Geraldine E. Champion 182 South 10th Street Grover Beach, CA 93433 Tel: (805) 473-4747
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