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The Plain English Attorney

If you are truly fortunate in life, you will get to personally know someone who is a visionary leader. Someone who sees a wrong and, no matter the cost, steps forward to right that wrong. A person who believes and brings others to believe in a dream that can merge opportunity, efficiency, and excellence. But above all, a person who can rally others to his cause in the name of justice, compassion, and equity. I am fortunate to have known that man, Henry W. Abts III.

Henry had a simple but powerful vision. And as often occurs, it was a vision born of turmoil in his own life. He saw what happened when his father passed on, when the agonies of probate poured salt on the wounds of a family already grieving over the loss of a loved one. How probate attorneys descended on the estates of everyone they could, pecking away at their assets until the frustrating and expensive process ran its long course. Henry questioned how affluent families were able to avoid the probate process and found a solution: a good revocable living trust. He then developed his vision to bring these otherwise expensive solutions to everyone in an affordable way, and he set forth on his mission to find allies and bring this solution to all who would listen.

I first heard Henry’s message and vision when I read his book “The Living Trust” when I was a first year law student, more years ago than I care to think about. At the time, my grandfather’s estate was going through probate and I wanted to see how this administrative disaster and my grandmother’s aggravation could have been avoided. I knew there just had to be a way, but I was not being taught in law school how to avoid a court process. I wanted to make sure my future clients’ families wouldn’t suffer as my grandmother did. When I read “The Living Trust,” I knew the direction I wanted to take my law practice. I can credit Henry with my own happiness in practicing law the way I wanted to, by preventing problems from occurring during a time of crisis rather than being paid for cleaning up a bureaucratic mess that could have been avoided.

Henry didn’t think much of probate attorneys. Actually, he thought quite a bit about probate attorneys, but what he thought was very negative and deservedly so. Most of the probate attorneys were bent on following the system’s directive of pushing Wills which would eventually lead to lucrative probate work. A story of a farmer and salesman comes to mind. A salesman was traveling down a dirt road and he sees a large puddle in the middle of the road. Thinking nothing of it he drives over it not realizing that it is actually a deep pit filled with water, and his car gets stuck. The farmer agrees to help him get his car out of the road, but he says he has to charge him $100 to get the car out. “Cars are always driving along, seeing the water and driving right into this hole, and I end up having to spend all day getting them out” the farmer said. After the salesman has his car out of the hole and pays the farmer the $100, he asks to the farmer, “Gosh, if you have to spend all day helping get cars out of the hole, when do you have time to farm? At night?” The farmer calmly replied, “No, night is when I fill the hole up with water.” And so we have the probate attorneys filling up the hole with water by pushing Wills on their clients and paying to get their families out of a mess. But Henry did much more than offer an alternative to probate to his own clients. He became that visionary leader, helping thousands of professionals keep their clients from driving unknowingly into the ditch of probate.

A few hours before hearing of Henry’s death, I was reading an article about George Wythe. Most Americans have not heard of him, but George Wythe was a critical Founding Father who pioneered law in Virginia and throughout the colonies. He became the first professor of law at William and Mary College, and he taught law to the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and even the first U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall. They all had their own accomplishments in the early days of our nation, but their vision of a nation of laws and their sense of justice was forged in large part by this one man, George Wythe.

In the arena of modern estate planning, we have lost our own Founding Father. We have lost a man who had a vibrant vision and dream of reducing the financial, legal, and personal agonies placed on all families through a burdensome probate system by bringing them good, cost-effective planning alternatives. Henry had a life filled with greatness in personally helping countless others. But his passing does not mean the end of his dream. It is only the beginning, It is now the calling and destiny of all of us who believe in Henry’s dream to take what he has taught us and continue. And not just to maintain the dream, but to improve it, and expand it, and spread it as far as we can. Henry has showed us the path through the wilderness, but it is now our responsibility, together, to build a road through it.

Henry was a friend, a mentor, and a teacher to me. He also showed me how to be successful in an estate planning practice while bringing the best, highest quality legal documents to my clients in an affordable way. And so I will do all that I can to continue to help my clients help their families by planning for the worst. And I ask all attorneys, accountants, and financial advisors alike to commit themselves alongside me in keeping Henry’s dream alive and, in Henry’s words, “carry the message to all who will listen.”

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