An interview with Lindsay M. Schoeneberger, RUSSELL, KRAFFT & GRUBER, LLP
Background: Lindsay and I met earlier in 2020 when mutual connections introduced us. We collaborated on a webinar for the Northern Lancaster Chamber of Commerce. While working together, I realized that Lindsay’s client stories provide an excellent context to help people evaluate their legal and estate planning needs.
Lindsay, tell us a little bit about what inspired you to become an attorney.
I’ve known since I was young, probably in 6th grade, that I wanted to be a lawyer. I expected that desire to fade or change as I got older. But every time I learned something more about practicing law, it solidified my desire to be a lawyer. I’ve always enjoyed problem-solving and helping others. Thankfully I get to do both in my job.
What is your primary area of practice, and how did you arrive at it?
I practice primarily in estate planning, estate administration, and Orphans’ Court litigation. Orphans Court is a court of protection, so most litigation is centered around protecting those who cannot protect themselves. It involves things like adoptions, guardianships, Will contests, abuse of Powers of Attorney, etc. I clerked for the Honorable Judge Jay J. Hoberg for two and a half years before entering private practice. Judge Hoberg presided over the Orphans’ Court for Lancaster County. My time clerking gave me a unique insight into the workings of the Orphans’ Court, and I developed an appreciation for the types of cases often heard in Orphans’ Court.
Who needs estate planning, and how can a person get started?
Everyone. Estate planning is not just for the wealthy, and it is not just about what happens when you die. It is about having your affairs in order to protect yourself and your loved ones. To get started, find an attorney that you trust, one with whom you can be open and who focuses at least a portion of his or her practice on estate planning. Think about what assets you have, what you want to do with them, and who you can trust to carry out your wishes when you are no longer able. To learn more, check out my blog article “How to Prepare to Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney.”
Why do adults need estate planning?
Adults need estate planning because life happens. Unexpected things happen, and inevitable things happen. To ensure the people you trust are making decisions for you when you can’t, you need to properly appoint them. To ensure your assets pass to the people you want them to pass to, you need to make proper bequests. No one likes the alternative. The alternative to having a Financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney is usually a guardianship, which is invasive and often expensive. The alternative to a Will is having your probate assets pass through the intestate statute. The intestate statute passes assets strictly by biological relationships and does not take into account the complex relationships of today.
On average, how much time can a person expect to invest in working with an attorney to move from no plan to prepared?
It depends on what is involved in getting a person to whatever they considered prepared. A barebones basic setup can be done in a few hours of time, usually over a few weeks time frame. A typical situation involves an initial consult with the clients to discuss their individual situations and needs. I then draft the documents and send them to the clients for review. Once everything looks good, we meet to execute the documents. Additional meetings or phone calls may be needed for extensive revisions or if more complex trusts are involved.
Please share some techniques people can use to find an attorney with whom they can trust and enjoy working.
Start by asking people for recommendations. When selecting the people to ask, make sure they are people who have similar personalities or values to you. This doesn’t always mean your best friends or family members if they value different traits in a professional. Next, do some research on the names you receive or find. Check out the firm website. Read the attorney’s biography. Does the attorney have a blog? Read some of their posts. See if you can get a sense of their personality. You need to find someone you can feel comfortable with so that you can be open and honest with your attorney. If you are not comfortable with the attorney, you will never be forthcoming with them nor comfortable with the final product. You have to trust that your estate plan works for you.
When I work with clients to create their Personal Contingency Plans for their home and business, one of the first things we discuss is the state of their legal documents. Roughly 25% of my clients, spanning 35 to 80, do not have any legal documents in place. One of the barriers is the expense, which leads some people to explore online legal tools. Are online legal documents a wise choice in any situation?
Rarely. The legal documents I have seen that are available online are often missing key clauses or do not meet the client’s actual needs. Even when the documents themselves are good, the instructions are lacking, or the people completing them miss key things that can cost more to fix or work around in the long run. I’ve had clients unable to act as the executor under a will prepared online because it was missing an essential clause. I’ve had others forced to go through a guardianship proceeding because the online power of attorney their loved one signed before developing dementia doesn’t meet Pennsylvania standards. In most cases, it is far more expensive and stressful to deal with online forms gone bad than it is to have an attorney prepare them from the start.
What are some of the downsides of using online legal tools rather than working with an attorney?
Online documents are meant to be a one size fits all solution. Even if you think the documents are being tailored to you based on a questionnaire you fill out, the documents are still being complied arbitrarily by something that was programmed, not someone who was trained to think independently. Everyone’s situation is different, and their estate plan should be made just for them. Sure two people could appear the same on paper but have vastly different needs. Those needs may only be discovered by an experienced attorney asking and interpreting the right questions. An online form generator is not trained to pick up on those nuances nor how to interpret them.
How much can the average person expect to pay (in Pennsylvania) to complete their Will, Power of Attorney, and Living Will or Healthcare Directive?
This is a hard one to answer. It really depends on the attorney and how they bill. Some attorneys will be a flat fee, others will bill at the hourly rate, while others will bill at the hourly rate but provide a discount. I am sure there are many other ways in which an attorney will determine the cost of estate planning documents. However, the average estate planning client, with normal revisions and average bequests, will usually be between $400-1000. This includes couples that have mirror documents.
What do business owners need to consider when it comes to legally authorizing someone to act on their behalf to run or sell their business when the time comes?
First, the person you are appointing to be in charge of your personal affairs may not be the person you want to have in charge of your business. Second, make sure your attorney knows you own a business. If certain language is missing from your documents, it could really delay business operations. Third, and probably most importantly, make sure your estate plan matches up with your business documents! Your operating agreement might prohibit your ability to transfer your share of a business. If you own a business, be prepared to have your estate planning attorney request to see your organizational documents.
Can you share a hypothetical client scenario that you wish everyone would consider when evaluating their estate plan readiness?
Estate planning is not a once-and-done process. It is something that should be reviewed every few years or every time there is a major life change. When people fail to update their estate plan, unexpected outcomes can occur. If you have a situation where you want an ex-spouse to continue to be a beneficiary of an investment account or life insurance policy, execute a new beneficiary designation, even if it says the same thing. The date it was done matters. Otherwise, your retirement account you wanted your ex-wife to have may end up going to a family member from whom you are estranged. If you have a Power of Attorney in place, but your agent under the document develops dementia and no alternates are named, you might as well not have one. I’ve seen people inherit who were never the intended recipients, and people go through guardianship proceedings because they never updated documents.
What are some questions people should ask when they are looking for an attorney that is a good fit for their needs, personality, and style?
What is your approach to estate planning (or whatever area of law you are seeking counsel in)? How long have you been practicing? What is their ideal client? Look up the attorney you are considering working with to see if they have a biography on the firm webpage. Check out blog articles or lectures they may have given to get a sense of their personality.
What is your approach to estate planning?
When meeting with a client, first, I need to understand the client’s goals. Not everyone has the same goal. Next, I need to understand the client’s assets. How are they titled? Is there a beneficiary designation? Is there anything limiting transferability? Finally, I look at what the client wants to do from the perspective of how is this going to work if it had to be probated tomorrow. What are the potential issues? Is there any way to prevent those issues now? Can I draft this document to make it easier for the beneficiaries? My job is to find the best method to achieve a client’s goals with the least chance of complications.
What is one question clients don’t ask you that they should?
What portion of your practice is dedicated to estate planning? A lot of attorneys dabble in estate planning. While they may be able to produce a perfectly serviceable Will or Power of Attorney, they could be missing ways to make your estate plan work better for you. Or, in some other cases, they could be making a bigger headache for you than is necessary. I’ve seen some truly odd Wills prepared by attorneys that only write one or two wills a year and never probate them.
Tell us about Russell, Krafft & Gruber’s areas of practice.
Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP is a general civil practice law firm. We currently have 15 attorneys and combined, and we practice in most civil areas of law. If we cannot help a client, we will go out of our way to try and find someone who can help them. Client service is a top priority.
How can people get in touch with you, and are you accepting new clients?
I can be reached at 717-293-9293 or firstname.lastname@example.org. I am absolutely accepting new clients.