Apr 14, 2010

Florida lawyers, Florida residents

After concluding a seminar yesterday in Port St. Lucie on wills, trusts, Florida Medicaid and Veterans benefits, an attendee complimented me on the presentation and said he was ready for me to craft his and his wife's estate plan. But, he added, he doesn't live in Florida.

I thanked him for his confidence. Then I encouraged him to proceed with his estate planning -- without me. It would be unwise for him to use a Florida attorney, I explained, and offered to refer him to a certified elder law attorney in his home state. Why would I send him elsewhere?

Lawyers licensed in one state sometimes represent that they can draft estate plans for residents of other states, but I think they do a terrible disservice to their clients. Estate planning laws are not the same in every state. These laws are complex and ever-evolving. It's difficult enough for a lawyer to achieve and maintain expertise in one state's laws, let alone another's. As proof, whenever a Floridian has asked me to review a plan drafted for him/her by an out-of-state attorney, I nearly always find the documents to be seriously flawed, and/or lacking features that would better serve the interests of someone residing here.

Even fundamental signing requirements differ among states. In Florida, a revocable trust (also known as a living trust) must be signed by the trustor in the presence of two witnesses, and all must sign in the presence of one another. Many states do not have that requirement. I have reviewed many trusts drafted by out-of-state lawyers that unsuspecting clients believe to be "Florida-compliant" that fail to meet Florida's execution standards and are entirely invalid for a Florida resident. To use another example, no-contest clauses are not valid in Florida, but are valid in some other states. And depending on where you live, deeding a house to a trust can either be a boon or a disaster, tax-wise.

Some states, New York and New Jersey for example, levy their own estate taxes. Florida does not. Obviously, your estate planning attorney must be intimately familiar with your home state's tax laws in order to help you establish the most tax-advantageous plan.

Most importantly, your estate planning documents are only a starting point in what should be a continuing relationship with your estate planning attorney. Estate planning is about life planning, not just death planning. I understand that clients entrust me with some of the most important issues in their lives, and I want to "be there" to counsel them and their families at every stage of their lives. I can't do that sufficiently well for people who live out of state. Our firm's attorneys encourage all our clients to avail themselves of our free three-year review, and to contact us whenever there has been a significant change in their financial, health or family circumstances. At The Karp Law Firm, we say that "we build relationships, not just documents." You should expect no less from your estate planning attorney, regardless of where you reside!

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