Domestic law doesn’t have to be contentious. Having a baby “is very often…the first impetus for doing a will,” says Jay Waxenberg, a partner in the New York City office of Proskauer Rose. Other major life events, such as marriage, a parent dying, a big inheritance, or simply buying a life insurance policy may also trigger the sudden desire to have a will, Waxenberg adds.
“There is not a lot of litigation compared to the number of people dying and the number of wills admitted to probate,” Waxenberg says. (Tell that to anyone who has bickered with siblings even when their parents have made very clear, very equal provisions.) At the same time, you “very often” do have “valuation issues when dividing up an estate equally,” Waxenberg adds. How do you value a family business, for example? Or a work of art? “This is a very people-oriented practice,” Waxenberg says of his line of work. Helping people determine when to give money to their children, at what ages, and how to structure the gift, is all part of his job.
Our rites of passage are typically accompanied by legal issues.
“You have to write your will assuming you are going to die tomorrow,” Waxenberg says. And don’t let it gather dust, he advises. Come back to it every now and then as circumstances change. Your sister-in-law, once a happy stay-at-home mom, might have gotten divorced and no longer be in a position to serve as guardian for your four kids. Your brother in California might be the most responsible candidate, but suppose your kids are still young teenagers when tragedy strikes. “Faced with the trauma of both parents dying, they’ll then be uprooted from their friends and shipped to the West Coast,” Waxenberg notes. That’s not a legal problem, he observes, but, then again, the best kind of lawyering looks beyond strictly legal considerations. Business lawyers help clients with their businesses. Personal lawyers help clients with their personal lives. For example, provisions on behalf of the guardian should sometimes also be inserted into a will, advises Gideon Rothschild, a partner at Moses & Singer in New York City. After all, someone taking on your kids might need a bigger house and a bit more money. What’s good for the guardian is good for the children.
“You don’t want to leave things to chance,” Rothschild adds. “You can name a backup guardian. Some parents like to name their own parents as guardian but at some point those grandparents may not be able to handle the job.” Naming an alternate is almost always a very good idea. “Trusts and estates law is more than just wills,” Rothschild says. Healthcare proxies, powers of attorney, guardianship proceedings, and setting up trusts are part of the mix. “We add significant value to the process,” Rothschild says, especially since part of his job is “to minimize the estate tax the heirs are going to have to pay.”
Uncle Sam, of course, isn’t the only threat to one’s assets. Nor is it just your heirs who might be bickering for bigger pieces of the pie. Lose a big lawsuit—say, if you’re a doctor nailed in a malpractice action—and your assets could be in jeopardy. Trusts and estates lawyers like Rothschild help protect your life’s earnings from any future creditors via offshore trusts and similar instruments.
Legal snafus can emerge while you’re still living, of course, and the workplace is a prime place for them. Tired of that guy in accounting asking you out on a date? Offended because the mailroom staff keeps telling dirty jokes within earshot? “Clients consult with us for a variety of reasons,” says Laurie Berke-Weiss, a partner at Berke-Weiss & Pechman in New York City. It doesn’t have to be as momentous as a wrongful discharge, or race and age discrimination. They might just have a mean boss and are looking for ways to make their lives less unpleasant, Berke-Weiss notes. Sexual harassment is likewise not always the overt scenario with a leering boss compelling sexual quid pro quos for job security or advancement. Far more mundane improprieties could get a second look from a lawyer’s eyes.
At the high end of employment law, you might need a lawyer to vet your contract. New York may be an at-will employment state, but top executives, high-profile editors in the publishing industry, and diverse Wall Street-types are often fortunate to have formal employment agreements in any event, according to Miriam Clark, a partner at Ritz & Clark in New York City.
An employee presented with a noncompete agreement might likewise want an attorney reviewing the arrangement. Noncompete agreements “seem to be more prevalent than in years past,” Berke-Weiss says. They might also be relatively clandestine as they are often buried in the employee handbook or stuck within a deferred compensation plan, Clark cautions.