Attorneys have the chance to treat with dignity those clients who may not be able to afford the typical legal fees...

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I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to join other UNC Law students in eastern NC for the Pro Bono wills trip. It provided the chance to apply the knowledge I have learned in my first two years and to see firsthand why attorneys should open themselves up to serve others who are unable to afford quality legal services. There are real problems to be addressed.

For example, while the default rules for how a deceased person’s property should pass are generally good for many who die without a will, they can create a less than ideal result, particularly for those with little wealth. Many people own very little real property, do not own a business, and have no substantial private retirement funds. Almost all of their wealth is in their residential property. If they do not write a will, at death, the default rules will divide that property among the appropriate relatives in equal shares. These rules avoid favoring one child over others, but it also reduces the families’ ability to leverage the assets for stable, long-term wealth creation, hindering the chance for that family to move up the economic ladder. Two particulars hinder this movement: (1) if subdivided, the land may become much less valuable and (2) when the land is held in common, multiple people have to sign off on any transactions involving the property. Imagine having to get four siblings to agree before using a shared home as collateral on a loan for one child to start a promising business. Or, if it would be wise to sell the property and invest the cash in other opportunities, every child, if they desire to avoid litigating the issue, would have to agree on the terms of the sale. At its core, the problem can be described as such: each of them has an incentive to guard their portion of the asset, but none have the freedom to leverage it for a wise opportunity. The land becomes caged and turns dormant. Therefore, something as simple as a will can serve to avoid many of these issues, but writing a will requires a licensed attorney—at least until the state decides to remove that restriction.

Attorneys need to realize that even their most basic skills are a scarce resource for those in the bottom income levels. They have the chance to spend a few hours helping someone work through a plan for devising his/her estate in a way that is best for their client’s particular family and social context. They have the chance to treat with dignity those clients who may not be able to afford the typical legal fees, choosing to give their best, even if not for pay. That chance is an honor.

I am thrilled that law students on this trip can get a glimpse of what they will one day be capable of. I just hope that we start now to develop a heart of good stewardship with our talents and abilities. If we do not, it will only be that much more difficult to change our ways once the future pressures of life push us further inward.

Posted by Jonathan T. Sink (Jon) on Wed. March 7, 2012 11:30 AM
Categories: Spring Break 2012 (Eastern)

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