MAY 3, 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 15
United Financial Systems Corporation looks like they can do it all. According to their website (which you will have to look up for yourself — we don’t want to point to it since it still includes information about how to sign up for the activities that have now been prohibited), they can tell you how to plan your estate, retirement, insurance needs, health care — even your funeral arrangements. There is a disclaimer that lets you know they do not practice law (and do not give investment advice). The Indiana Supreme Court begs to differ.
In a disciplinary action three weeks ago, that state’s high court found that UFSC was “an insurance marketing agency,” and it was practicing law. The company was ordered to stop selling living trusts, to give every client a copy of the Court’s opinion, to offer refunds to all clients they had worked with in the past four years, and to pay the costs and some of the attorney’s fees associated with the proceeding. A handful of lawyers were included in the disciplinary process; most agreed to end their involvement with UFSC (and the practice of participating in non-lawyer legal work) and were dismissed from the case.
What was UFSC doing? It had “Estate Planning Assistants” (non-lawyers) contact prospective customers to tell them about the importance of estate planning. If the customer signed up for the $2,695 living trust package, the salesperson collected $750 to $900 and helped the customer fill out a questionnaire.
That questionnaire was then sent to one of several attorneys UFSC hired to prepare living trusts, wills and powers of attorney. The attorney would be paid $225, and would make one telephone call to the client to discuss the estate plan. Once a trust and supporting documents were prepared the signing was handled by another UFSC salesperson — for another $75 slice of the total fee.
The person handling the signing, whose title was usually “Financial Planning Assistant,” also had access to the customer’s financial information (remember that questionnaire?) and could make recommendations about investment changes. One common proposal was to liquidate other investments in order to purchase an annuity — which, incidentally, would yield a significant commission for the Financial Planning Assistant and UFSC.
The Indiana Supreme Court’s opinion details one extreme example of the effect of this marketing juggernaut. The 72-year-old woman was persuaded to liquidate $500,000 worth of Exxon Mobil stock — the bulk of her entire net worth — in order to purchase an annuity. The result: she incurred a $132,000 income tax liability and her salesperson received a $40,000 commission. State of Indiana ex rel. Indiana State Bar Association v. United Financial Systems Corporation, April 14, 2010.
Would UFSC face the same result in Arizona? Probably not. While the unauthorized practice of law is prohibited by court rule, Arizona repealed its criminal statute decades ago. The Arizona Supreme Court has not been active in reviewing such cases, and indeed has even created a “certified document preparer” classification for non-lawyers who “assist” clients in creating wills and trusts.
How can you avoid being taken advantage of by non-lawyer “estate planners” or “document prepapers”? Lawyers tend to think the best answer is the simplest one: hire a lawyer for your legal needs. If you are approached by a “finanical planning assistant” or something similar, you might want to ask “assistant to whom?”
If the salesperson assures you that they have a crack team of estate planners, tax advisers and financial consultants, ask for a few names, titles and credentials. Above all, be very cautious of any person or group who also happens to sell annuities or other insurance products. Not all insurance salespersons are questionable, but practically all questionable non-lawyer “estate planners” sell insurance products.