Even as a student at Ferris High School, Carol Hunter knew she wanted to be a lawyer. But a decade later, she still wasn’t sure which field to focus on.
Then, fresh out of law school, Hunter needed a place to stay.
Coincidentally, her grandmother, in her 90s, needed a housemate.
“My folks were trying to take care of her, but it wasn’t really working,” Hunter recalled. “So my moving in was a win-win.”
And through that arrangement, Hunter discovered a professional niche still in its infancy: elder law.
Today, 20 years later, she’s a partner in Eymann Allison Hunter Jones P.S. in the Patsy Clark Mansion, 2208 W. Second Ave.
During a recent interview, Hunter discussed the importance of planning for life’s inevitable transitions, and why many people don’t.
S-R: What was your favorite class in high school?
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Hunter: Besides a rock star? (laugh) I thought I might want to teach English. But several teachers encouraged me to consider law, because I enjoyed reading, writing and using words to persuade people.
S-R: Did you watch TV court dramas?
Hunter: I started watching “L.A. Law” when I was 15 or 16. Of course, that wasn’t reality, but it made law seem interesting.
S-R: Where did you go to college?
Hunter: I was an undergrad at WSU, and attended law school at Arizona State.
S-R: What was your first job out of law school?
Hunter: I worked for a downtown firm, doing litigation. But those two years living with my grandmother opened my eyes to older people’s true need for an advocate. That’s when I switched to elder law.
S-R: How did you learn about it?
Hunter: When I was in college, they didn’t offer elder law classes, but they encouraged you to take everything possible, because the goal is to teach you to think like a lawyer. Once I became interested in elder law, I immersed myself in continuing-education courses. And I had some really good mentors – particularly (elder law attorney) Dick Sayre. I’d take him to lunch every few months and he’d give me all the information I needed.
S-R: What was some advice that stuck?
Hunter: When you’re in the initial conference with clients, let them do most of the talking, because you’re there to gather as much information as you can, and then apply the law to it.
S-R: You were 28 when you started focusing on elder law. Was it awkward dealing with clients two or three times your age?
Hunter: I hoped they’d take me seriously, and they did because they were so hungry for information.
S-R: Many of your clients may never have been in a law office before. How do you establish trust?
Hunter: Lawyers in general don’t have a very good reputation when it comes to communication, so I’m very conscientious about returning phone calls. Also, I work with a great paralegal, but I try to be the face of the firm with my clients as much as possible, because paralegals aren’t trained to answer some of the questions that invariably come up in meetings.
S-R: How has elder law evolved during the past two decades?
Hunter: Probate and guardianship laws have changed, and the courts are more heavily involved. For instance, people have to go through a certification program to become legal guardians for their parents or an incapacitated adult child.
S-R: Has the aging boomer population spurred interest among lawyers in estate planning?
Hunter: Not as much as you might think. Maybe there’s a notion that it’s not glamorous. But it’s not all touchy-feely. I’m in court at least once a week.
S-R: What about the touchy-feely side?
Hunter: There are times when I find myself being a social worker. My clients know everything is confidential, so we go through a lot of Kleenex in our conference room.
S-R: What are some typical mistakes older people make regarding estate planning?
Hunter: No. 1 is denial about their mortality. Not getting one’s affairs in order – whether it’s a basic will or setting up a trust for an adult child who’s having marital issues – can have a detrimental domino effect.
S-R: Anything else?
Hunter: Some people think meeting with an estate attorney is very cumbersome. It’s not. At the first meeting I ask the relevant questions, and then we meet again two or three weeks later and sign all the papers.
S-R: How much does a simple will cost?
Hunter: It varies due to everyone’s unique circumstances, but it typically costs between $600 and $1,500, which also includes durable powers of attorney, health care directives, and a community property agreement for some couples.
S-R: Presumably not every will is as “simple” as the term suggests.
Hunter: People sometimes take out anger toward a child in their estate plan – give one child less than another. Or they say, “Oh, my one son is so successful, I’m not going to leave him anything,” and the estate becomes shrapnel between siblings. I can’t tell them what to do, but I can tell them what I think and what I’ve seen.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hunter: This is an area of law that most people don’t even know exists until something happens to them. And when it does, they’re so thankful (when things go smoothly) that it’s very high on the gratitude meter.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hunter: Some of the family dynamics. What I like least is when a woman in her 80s tells me, “I still have open wounds. I have not closed the loop with people in my life.”
S-R: Should everyone have a will?
Hunter: Yes, because if you die with any assets whatsoever – a house, a car, a bank account – it’s more of a hassle if you don’t have a will.
S-R: What do you think of generic wills available on the Internet?
Hunter: They’re probably basically fine, but the stakes are high, and if one thing is wrong, it can be expensive. Washington has fairly consumer-friendly probate laws, so if your will conforms to those laws, it makes settling an estate a lot easier.
S-R: Which assets are not subject to probate?
Hunter: Any life insurance policies, IRAs or 401(k)s for which you’ve named beneficiaries.
S-R: What’s the first thing family members should do, in terms of the estate, upon the death of a relative?
Hunter: Find out who is in possession of the original will and who is named as personal representative. In our state, the personal representative is legally bound to send a copy of that will – and eventually an inventory of the estate – to all beneficiaries named in the will, as well as all heirs. An heir is someone legally entitled to an estate, and a beneficiary is actually named in the will. Usually those are the same people, but not always.
S-R: What costs are associated with probate?
Hunter: Filing a will with the county costs $250. Attorneys in our state have to charge by the hour. (In some states they charge a percentage of the estate’s value.) So if you pick a lawyer you know will be reasonable with their hourly rate, and if heirs get along, you’re probably looking at $2,500 to $3,000 in legal fees.
S-R: What’s your hourly rate?
Hunter: $250 to $275.
S-R: If the estate isn’t complicated and all the heirs are on the same page, is a lawyer essential?
Hunter: Not essential, but very helpful.
S-R: What surprises can occur during probate?
Hunter: Sometimes there are assumptions about what a relative wanted, and I have to remind people to stay within the verbiage of the will.
S-R: Any examples come to mind?
Hunter: One client wanted to take his whole family, along with his dad’s ashes, to Hawaii for a week and have the estate pay for everything, because he said that’s what dad would have wanted.
S-R: Your reaction?
Hunter: If that’s what dad had wanted, he would have clearly stated it in his will.