After years at the grind stone working hard to make a living and providing for their families, most of our seniors are enjoying their "golden years," and deservedly so. That doesn't mean they don't worry about thier health, or keeping their nest eggs in tact, or making sure they leave something for their loved ones. Two California-based companies played on those worries and bilked thousands of dollars from nearly 8,000 Ohio senior citizens.
American Family Prepaid Legal Corp. ("American") and Heritage Marketing and Insurance Services, Inc., are California-based companies owned and operated by Jeffrey Norman and his father, Stanley. The Columbus Bar Association filed a lawsuit against the Stanleys and their companies, claiming that they bought the names of thousands of Ohio senior citizens and sent them materials in the mail warning them about the high costs and complications of probate - distributing their assets though a will.
In-home interviews were scheduled for seniors who responded to the mailings. The companies' non-attorney representatives used high-pressure sales tactics to convince the seniors to pay $1,995 for a "plan" that included all sorts of legal services. At the same time, the representatives tried to sell them annuities - investment tools where you get money over a period of time.
In most cases, the seniors only received a living trust and other related legal documents, like power of attorney and a living will. The problem is, the documents were prepared by non-attorneys, usually in California. The forms were then "approved" by Edward P. Brueggeman, an Ohio-based attorney on the companies' payroll.
According to the Supreme Court of Ohio, Brueggeman didn't perform enough oversight or legal services to make the deals legitimate. American, Heritage, and the Stanleys were fined over $6.4 million for practicing law without a license. They've also been barred from doing business in Ohio. As for Brueggeman, disciplinary proceedings are in progress.
As the American/Heritage case shows, only licensed attorneys can give you legal advice and prepare legal documents for you. This general rule is for your protection. Bad legal advice and improperly prepared legal documents mean nothing but trouble for you.
That doesn't mean, however, that you can't do some things for yourself, like prepare some of your own documents. In most states, individuals may prepare their wills, living wills, and other papers that American and Heritage charged $2,000 to prepare. You need to be careful, of course. Make sure you get legal forms from a reputable source, like Lawyers.com. Carefully read the documents, and if you have any questions, contact an attorney. For the average person who needs documents like those prepared by American and Heritage, an attorney's fee will be far less than $2,000.
Research Your Legal Representative
There are legitimate pre-paid legal plans out there, and one might be right for you if you anticipate the need for ongoing legal advice. Before you spend the money though, you should:
- Make sure the person or company offering the plan is authorized to practice law in your state. An attorney licensed in California isn't automatically allowed to practice in Ohio, for example. Ask for an attorney registration number, and then contact your local bar association and make sure they're licensed to practice law
- Ask your local bar association if any complaints have been filed against the pre-paid service provider. You may also want to check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB)
- Find out exactly what legal services and documents you'll get for your money
- Contact a private attorney and ask about her charges or fees for preparing the documents offered by the pre-paid program. Again, make sure she's licensed to practice law and check if any complaints have been filed against her
Getting legal advice for estate planning is a good thing. It's an important step and it needs to be done properly. But don't get taken. You worked hard for your money, so don't be so quick to give it up. With a little research and asking the right questions, you can make all the necessary arrangements without going broke in the process.