Several years ago during what was later described as the “Economic Downturn”, I went searching for ways to get new business with a minimum of expense. I was introduced to a business networking group called Le Tip and joined an established chapter near Thousand Oaks, California. When I showed up at my first meeting, the guy who came to my rescue as I floundered around a room of total strangers was none other than attorney Mark Lester. Mark explained to me the way the group worked and taught me how to develop a 30 second “commercial” about what I do for a living. He introduced me to everyone else in the group and generally made me feel at home. As it turns out, that is just the kind of nice guy that Mark is. Now I’m not saying this simply because we are both Eagle Scouts and strong advocates of the Scouting program. I’m saying it because Mark is really a good guy, and as it turns out, a great lawyer.
When I started my series of interviews, I immediately thought of Mark but wondered how I would work an estate planning lawyer into a criminal defense blog. As it turns out, it’s quite simple. Remember my joke that most of my client’s cases stem from substance abuse, financial problems or relationships? Here’s where Mark comes in. As an estate planning attorney, a guy like Mark helps a guy like me keep my finances in order. This is true for both the short term – while I am still alive, and the long term – when I am pushing up daisies at Forest Lawn. And of course, when I asked Mark if he would answer some questions for me he said yes. So here goes:
Tell me about yourself. “I grew up in Southern California and graduated from San Marino High School. I attended Stanford undergrad where I majored in Economics and played the clarinet in the Stanford Band. I was part of the halftime show at a USC game that got the Band banned from television for 5 years. I went to law school at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington which was a great place to go to school because it rains so much there was nothing to do but study! Next I went to Boston University to earn a master’s degree in taxation.”
It is of note that any financial planning contemplates serious tax ramifications. Probate necessarily contemplates potential tax problems years or even generations in the future.
“From the personal side of my life, I’m an Eagle and the proud father and step-father of 1 Eagle Scout and 2 almost Eagle Scouts. I have raised 5 great kids and love to hike, camp and/or golf when I’m not practicing law. My secret passion is to hop in my RV and just hit the road with no particular destination in mind.”
How did you get started doing probate and estate planning? “I fell in love with estate planning in law school when I took my first class wills and trusts. I knew this was an area of law in which I wanted to practice. I went on to Boston University and got my master’s degree in taxation so I could have the expertise in understanding the tax implications of estate planning.”
What does it mean to be a “certified specialist”? “Being a certified specialist requires that at least 25% of my practice has to be devoted to estate planning, trust & estates matters and probate. It also means that I’ve taken a passed a 2nd Bar examination devoted solely to estate planning issues and passed a second background check among my peers and other specialists in this area of law.”
What is a typical day for you? “Fortunately there is no such thing as a “typical” day for me except that I am usually up by 5 a.m. Once at the office I do both the drafting and litigation when it comes to estate plans. On one day I may be drafting wills and trusts for my clients and on another day I may be taking a deposition or arguing in court to get relief for my clients. No two days are ever alike, which is another thing I love about my work.”
What makes you different from other probate and estate planning lawyers? “Besides being a certified specialist, I am one of the very few estate planners who also litigate disputes. I believe this makes me a better lawyer. Because I have the transactional experience of drafting estate plans, as a litigator I can identify where weaknesses in the documents exist and know how to best attack those documents in court. Because of my litigation experience, I draft better documents that are less likely to be set aside or attacked in court. And, because I do both the transaction side and the litigation side of estate planning, I am almost always busy.”
Do you work in a firm or by yourself? “I work in a small firm called Jones & Lester located in Oxnard, California. My partner, Jim Jones is (in my opinion) one of the finest business transactional and litigation attorneys in California. Jim taught me early on that the most effective attorneys will be the ones that can handle both the transactional and the litigation sides of the area of law where the attorney wants to practice. The business side of our practice involves business and transactional matters for multi-million dollar disputes between large corporations and governmental entities and litigation in both state and federal court from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Jim’s breadth of experience has resulted in his being called as a defense expert witness in the area of the standard of care for business transactional or litigation attorneys whose work has been called into question in court.”
We have an expression in the legal field for the top tier lawyers – we refer to them as the “lawyer’s lawyers” or the lawyers who a lawyer might call if he needed to hire a lawyer. Whenever we see a lawyer who is utilized as an expert witness in his own field, it’s a sure sign that he is good at his job.
Who is a typical client for you? “For the estate planning side of my practice, my typical client has children and wants to protect them from “wasting” the estates assets and wants to avoid the costs and delays involved with probate.”
“Wasting” means using up the estate assets on the large and often unnecessary costs of probate. These costs can include court filing fees, administrative fees, attorney’s fees and more. Additionally, the probate process will takes months to years to reach a resolution.
“Probate” or administering a will is the legal process of opening a formal proceeding in the probate court to identify, collect, value and report to the court all of the decedent’s property interests; identify and pay their debts; and to distribute the balance of the estate to its intended beneficiaries.
“By contrast, by establishing a living trust with a pour-over will the costs of administration can often be reduced by 80% or more and much of the delay in effectuating the disposition of assets can be avoided. Thus, there is simply no reason not to have living trust for anyone with an estate of $500,000 or more.”
“On the trusts and estates litigation side of my practice, my typical client is either administering a trust or will and has a dispute with their family or has a serious questions about the validity of their parent’s will or trust and seeks to challenge the documents.”
When should someone be calling you for your services? “Everyone should have at least a Will, an Advance Health Care Directive for health care decisions and a Durable Power of Attorney for asset management. Otherwise, the State of California dictates who gets your assets and after you become incapacitated and tens of thousands are spent in the courts; essentially the state controls the decisions for your estate.”
If you don’t have these items in place or don’t know what they are, you should call Mark or someone like him right away.
“For those who have had a family member pass away and there are questions about how the estate gets administered and distributed OR if you believe someone has a claim to a share of an estate, that person should call me so I can explain the process, what needs to be done and the potential viability of any claim they may have.”
How do people pay for your services? “Estate planning services are normally provided on a flat fee basis, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate.”
“Probate services are generally governed as a matter of law and paid out of the proceeds of the estate after it is settled.”
“Trust and estate litigation services are normally charged on an hourly basis. Most of the time services for the defense of wills and trusts are paid hourly but these fees are paid from the trust or estate assets”.
Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about your practice. If you would like to contact Mark Lester or have questions about estate planning please contact Mark Lester:
Jones & Lester 300 E. Esplanade Drive, Suite 1200, Oxnard, CA 93036, (805) 604-2655