Trusts and Estates is an area of law where lawyers can see their clients in the worst case scenario. Other practitioners may witness vicious legal disputes, litigation warfare, or even parties in severe emotional and physical pain. However, it is inheritance law that exposes counselors to firsthand individuals affected by the death of their loved ones and the painful and often disorienting consequences. Accompanying clients through such difficult times also offers the opportunity to help with healing and resolution, if such paths are at all possible. The latter can be difficult, especially with estate disputes, as the central character who has all the answers is the deceased who is silenced forever. In many ways, it is the lawyer who, during these troubled times, tries to analyze open questions and answer questions that we may never know the answers to.
As a Trusts and Estates practitioner, I knew that one day I would have to use my own services. Perhaps there is no other area where this is the case. A personal injury attorney can never be in a car accident, and a marital attorney can evade divorce. A real estate attorney cannot avoid death. As Christopher Bullock wrote in The Cobbler of Preston (1716), “It is impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes.”
The death of someone close is always shocking, whether expected or surprising. Losing a parent is particularly hard. Recently, after the sudden death of my beloved father, I felt like my clients so often. I was shocked and amazed, angry and sad. Immediately I didn’t know what to do or how to act, who to call or where to look for help. Call the funeral director, find the grave, order the death certificates, and find the will. I tried to breathe and organize, but I was suffocated by loss and sadness. Where was my help? Where was my advisor? Where was my advice?
It was then that I understood why surgeons don’t operate on themselves. With all of my planning, with all of my sermons, I felt overwhelmed. My father’s death reminded me that we, as lawyers, are human too. We’re so used to being fixers that sometimes we need repairs, or at least a little assistance. We are not without bad days and bad experiences. I too felt the pain and disorientation that plague you in grief and that so often color my calls to families after the death of their loved ones. As attorneys, especially on a personal level, we try to be strong and encourage our clients to put emotions aside in favor of the facts or executing a plan. In reality, my father’s death was a reminder of how hard it is for my customers (and me!) To do this. Litigation, filings, and litigation are associated with inescapable emotions. Ministerial duties, no matter how necessary, involve anger, exhaustion, grief, and even denial or avoidance.
My father taught me a lot all my life. He liked to call himself my best customer. That was controversial because there were times when he didn’t take my advice – something that many lawyers trust and is especially frustrating when you love and adore the client as I love and adore my father. Trusts and estates, as well as senior lawyers, are privy to death as well as watching clients progress, recover from a disability, survive cruel situations, or live their days in the best of circumstances. This can mean avoiding court or staying at home despite medical and physical problems.
Having faced some challenges in his last decade, my father showed me that despite the inevitable, including aging, poor health, and loss of a spouse, one can live a full and meaningful life with the right support, advice, and faith . He was an example I often used to speak to my clients about whether it was estate planning, paying for long-term care, managing relationships, or just persevering against all odds. To be fair, I’ve also used it as an example of what not to do as most clients are complicated and require some degree of realignment when things get tough.
Losing a customer is also difficult in this area. Losing a father is immensely difficult. In this case, however, I am reminded that I am more than a lawyer. No legal education can affect how we all feel when we witness the death of someone close by. If anything, such an experience realigns us and awakens the sensitivities and compassion that lead so many of us to work in the field.
Cori A. Robinson is a lone practitioner who founded Cori A. Robinson PLLC, a law firm in New York and New Jersey, in 2017. For more than a decade, Cori’s legal practice has focused on trusts and estates and legacy law, including estate and Medicaid planning, estate and administration, estate litigation, and guardianship. She can be reached at [email protected].