I originally became interested in trusts and estates law because of my college majors in history and art history and my interest in collecting antique furniture. Just as a piece of art is unique, each
client is unique. Each day brings something new and interesting. Two people may have a similar net worth but the nature of their assets, family structure, and intentions will be different and thus need different planning. For instance, are the children infants or adults? Is this a first or later marriage? Is the family business to be shared equally by the children or is only one to be in charge?
As a result of these individual differences, I often have to advise clients to think of the future and contemplate unexpected circumstances, because heirs often do not have the same goals or needs as their parents. At the same time I encourage clients to include flexibility, because it is impossible to try to anticipate or plan for every contingency. Often an estate-planning attorney has to work with a family for some time before family members will fully explain the reasoning for their decisions. Unfortunately, I sometimes find myself in the role of a family counselor, trying to settle family disputes that began as petty grievances years ago. I remember an estate where the acrimony boiled down to what happened to a Boy Scout uniform 20 years earlier. In those cases, I try to remind people that this is the only family they will ever have and ask them if it is worth losing them over something petty. Because of this long-term involvement, I often get to know and work with multiple generations of a family.
Each estate is also unique. A trusts and estates attorney has to be very nearly a jack-of-all-trades. I often describe estates like fingerprints because no two are the same. If someone owns an unusual asset, then their estate will have to deal with it. I find the mixture of assets interesting. I have dealt with assets as diverse as collections of rare cars, antique medals and coins, fine art, commercial Laundromats, and claims against foreign governments.
Often in the probate process you discover that the family tree is not complete, so you have to become a bit of a genealogist. Sometimes it is a simple as cousins who have moved away and lost touch. Other times, it is what I call the black sheep of the family, the person no one talks about. One of my classmates, Ray Dowd, is also at Dunnington Bartholow & Miller. Ray has been involved in a number of litigation matters that involved recovering valuable art whose original owners died during the Holocaust. In those cases, it is important to identify to the court the rightful heirs, who have standing to bring a claim to recover the art. Sometimes you have to trace ownership rights from the original owner through three or four generations and numerous estates to reach the current heirs.
The motto of Fordham Law is “In the Service of Others”. This is something I believe in. Currently I am helping the Federal Bar Association SDNY chapter organize a Wills for Veterans program to help veterans with basic estate planning.
Ed Greason ’91 is counsel at Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller LLP.