“There’s a reason why lawyers are called counselors.” – It was these words that spoke to Laura Thatcher at the age of 16, when she was first advised in high school to become a lawyer. To this day, she remembers how powerful it was to hear this and how it spoke to her desire to help people and pursue a career in law. In the course of her legal career, she was still looking for more and like many driven entrepreneurs, Laura had a life-changing event that brought greater clarity to her passion to be of service. For Laura, the passing of her father was the inspiration and drive that ultimately fueled her desire to help families and individuals with estate planning and provide peace of mind for her clients. We recently met with Laura to learn more about her story and understand the importance of having an estate plan in place to support our loved ones.
LOCALISTA MAGAZINE: Tell us about yourself first. What is your history? Where did you go to school and work in the past?
LAURA THATCHER: I’ve lived in the South Bay since I was five. After graduating from Chadwick, I went to college at UC Santa Barbara and then Loyola Law School. I graduated from law school and passed the bar exam on my first try. I then practiced litigation for more than ten years, but in 2009, I needed to figure out what I wanted to do when I ‘grew up’ and litigation was not it. I decided to leave litigation and open a family-oriented practice. Over the last five years, I’ve focused my practice largely on estate planning. That’s really where my passion is. I like estate planning and how personal and powerful it can be.
LM: What inspired you to get into this practice?
LT: I found that what was important to me in life really came out of my dad’s memorial service. My father was a successful engineer but I didn’t know how many people’s careers he was responsible for. So many people who worked for my father spoke [at his funeral service] about my dad’s impact on their lives professionally. My family was very lucky to have had a plan when my father passed. So many people don’t have anything planned. When families are dealing with the obituary and wills, and funeral plans, it’s hard to take time to figure out the business side of things during the death process and grieving. I really think that everyone deserves an estate plan.
LM: What is an estate plan and why is it important to have one?
LT: An estate plan is the legal documents that assist in taking care of yourself and your ‘stuff.’ There are two different aspects. First, is how do you want medical decisions and finances taken care of, if you can’t do it yourself? The second part is what to do with the things you’ve accumulated when you die. Dealing with the business of death and dealing with grief at the same time is too much to ask of anyone. An estate plan is one of the nicest things we can give our loved ones because it takes that burden off of them.
LM: Why should someone work with an estate planning attorney?
LT: One of the reasons to work with an estate planning attorney is for guidance in that selection process. Not everyone knows who they want to help them. I can’t say your Aunt Sally should take care of your financial decisions, but I can help ask questions to narrow down the people in your life who can help like: Do you prefer someone to take care of your children? What qualities are important in a substitute parent? Do they need to handle financials or is it more important that they have an ethical or religious focus? People often think that they have to assign all of these responsibilities to one person, but you don’t need one person doing everything. We can divide trustees and power of attorney amongst several people who are best suited for the responsibility.
LM: How do you approach estate planning with your clients?
LT: Estate planning is so personal that you have to go with the person with whom you feel comfortable. I try and take the fear out of planning your estate. It’s about taking care of you. We take the planning process in stages and I focus on what’s appropriate for now. My questionnaire helps clients go through their biographical information like who they are, where they live, are they married, who they would like to take care of them and their property. I focus on making the process simple and achievable without overcomplicating things. Its simple steps to take and I work with you to find the plan that’s right for where you are now. It’s not one size fits all.
LM: Describe what kinds of individuals or situations could benefit from your services?
LT: My ideal clients are typically married couples living in the South Bay with school-aged kids, no existing estate plan and they own their own home. My clients are also people going through a divorce and need to re-establish and revise their existing estate plan or create a new one. A lot of times there is some acrimony and we make sure they’re leaving the money to the right heirs like their children versus their prior spouse. We also work with elders who are downsizing their homes and want to protect their assets. It’s important with potential long-term care that you maximize your ability to keep your assets and not have them go to the government. We can also put different tools into place to prevent putting a lien on the house for medical expenses.
LM: What’s the worst case scenario for having no estate plan in place?
LT: I hate doing estate planning though fear or scaring people but awareness of consequences is important to understand why we do this. If there is no estate plan, the people who inherit our money are automatically determined by state law. For example, if a non-married couple that has been together for a long-standing time is counting on each other financially, often when the bread-winner of the couple passes away without an estate plan, the non bread-winning, non-spouse is left out in the cold. For healthcare, the non-married couples tend to experience those stories of not being able to visit their partner in the hospital because there are family conflicts. For parents, the worst case is if you don’t properly plan for your children’s guardians. Your kids could end up in foster care whether for two days or their whole childhood or — if not foster care — they could end up with someone that you don’t want them with. Lack of planning can have a number of really scary consequences. It goes back to basic estate planning with a power of attorney, guardian nomination, and advanced healthcare directive. Even if the money is there and you don’t have someone designated to handle your affairs, your mortgage won’t get paid. The proper power needs to be in place to pay your mortgage and access your accounts and property, and make decisions on your behalf.
LM: What are some things you offer above and beyond other estate planning attorneys?
LT: We offer Guardian Angel parties. People love going to at-home parties, so I took the idea of the at-home party to make it work with estate planning. We came up with the idea of having in-home parties to prepare guardian nominations with parents. A host invites a few people over to their home and I prepare guardian nomination forms for everyone. They are sent home with a notarized form. It’s free for guests and I offer discounts if they hire me for estate planning work. As parents, we need take time out for ourselves, so why not make it a night out and get some estate planning done? — Have fun and take care of your family at the same time.
LM: Tell us an interesting story about your business. Were there any “wow” moments? Anything funny or unusual?
LT: One of the biggest ‘wow’ moments I’ve had is with some of the people who have worked for me at my practice who come to me for guidance and advice. Mentoring a new young mind and helping to give the experience of our type of law — even if it’s showing them that this may not be the path they want — but to help guide them is so rewarding. The other ‘wow’ moment is when I’ve seen a client go through some of the transitions of litigated cases. It’s incredibly rewarding going through the ‘muck and the mire’ to get that final decision to give them the freedom that they didn’t have. The probate or trust administration litigation process can take a while. It often takes six months to a year or more to go through. When all the straggling pieces and debts are closed and distributed, it’s such a relief to clients.
LM: People may be surprised to know what about you or your business?
LT: The nice thing about estate planning is that it’s flexible. You can put a plan in place and if your life changes or you have a better idea, you can change it. If you just get that one document done – a guardian nomination or advanced healthcare doctrine – then the rest becomes easier. Its baby steps.
LM: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received regarding your business?
LT: That I make the legal process understandable. Is that possible? Yes it is.
LM: When do you feel most inspired by your work?
LT: When I’m helping families; when I sit down and explain something to someone and the light goes on in their head and they get it. When I meet with clients, one of the things I do is provide a diagram of the financial aspects of the trust and what it looks like and how it works. After I do the diagram, the light turns on and makes it accessible for people in a way that they didn’t get before.
LM: When should someone start the estate planning process?
LT: I think the estate planning process should start when you turn 18. It’s very simple, very affordable. Make it a birthday gift when your kids turn 18. Asset distribution may not be an issue at 18 and they may not necessarily need a will, but it’s now up to the kids to make their first adult decisions and for them to think about, who do I want to make my decisions if I can’t?
LM: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your practice?
LT: The estate planning process is about empowering people to ask for help. That’s an empowering decision. It’s not weak, it’s strong. You are not relying on the general goodwill and are taking control and saying, “If and when I need help, this is the person to help me and this is what I need help with.” It’s incredibly powerful to do this.
Location: 1500 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 500, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266