Many people don’t consider creating wills and trusts until it’s too late. MPS attorney Francis Beninati says it’s never too early to think about estate planning. We sat down with him recently to talk about estate planning, helping clients understand their needs, and providing their heirs for their future.
Tell us a little about yourself, and how you got interested in practicing law.
I grew up mainly in Europe. My mom was English, and my dad was Italian. They met when he was in London to learn English, but then World War II happened, and it wasn’t until after the war that they got back together and got married. We moved around a lot, around Europe and to South Africa. One of the tough parts was having to start over again each time I went to a new school. But the good part is that after a while, you learn to get along with everyone. We settled in Italy when I was twelve. I went to the International School of Milan, and most of my friends were American. So when they went to college in the United States, I ended up coming here, too. I went to Duke University as an undergraduate and then went to University of Virginia School of Law. I thought that a law degree would provide me with a good graduate education that I would use in Europe working in international business.
How did you get into estate planning law?
I ended up marrying an American woman and decided to stay in the country. Illinois was one of only three states that allowed “aliens” to practice law, so we moved to Chicago. It turned out to be a wonderful move. In my first job as a lawyer in the 1970s, I was the “garbage man.” I did what nobody else wanted to do, which is what young lawyers were expected to do in those days. There then was an opening in estate planning after a senior associate left, and I found that estate planning was uniquely suited to my personality. I liked the need for precision when drafting documents, and I liked the client relationships that I formed. When you discuss sensitive planning issues with clients, you become almost like a priest or a rabbi to those clients. And I liked that. I felt as though what I was doing was very meaningful.
You were part of Kaplan Saunders Valente & Beninati, LLP, which was recently acquired by MPS. How has that process been?
I joined Kaplan Saunders more than 20 years ago, because it was a smaller firm and I could run the estate planning department the way I wanted to. When the opportunity came to move to MPS Law, I was thrilled with the idea, since we all moved together as a firm. I’m really pleased to be here. Going forward I think I will have a lot of work to pass along to younger lawyers. I have trained many young lawyers in my career, and I will enjoy continuing to do that going forward.
What makes a good estate planning attorney?
You have to be meticulous, and you have to keep up with changes in the law, particularly estate, gift and income tax laws. Beyond that, you need something more. I think you need soul. You need to have the ability to understand what’s going on with a client, even if a client won’t tell it to you face-to-face. Understanding their situation and their family dynamics helps you draft documents that are tailored to their particular family situations.
You mention helping clients achieve their goals. When should someone talk with an estate planning attorney?
A lot sooner than they might think. Everyone, needs to think about estate planning. That’s especially true if you have significant assets, but even those with smaller estates need to plan sooner rather than later. If you don’t have a will or trust, the State of Illinois says what happens to your assets. If you do have minor children, aging parents, or others that you want to benefit in certain ways, then you can set up trusts for them. It’s not about controlling your assets from the grave. It’s about setting up people for success. And the only way to do that is by planning ahead of time. Sometimes I say to my clients, you can pay me now or pay me later. It costs money to set up a trust, but a properly set up trust can save additional expense and aggravation at death.
What kind of clients do you represent?
I represent many business clients, including automobile dealers, major contractors, doctors, and lawyers. Business clients are unique. They have to think about estate taxes. The Illinois exemption on estate taxes is currently $4 million. You don’t want to leave your spouse or children with a valuable asset that generates an estate tax but with no cash to pay estate tax because your assets are tied up in your closely held business. That could mean your business is on the sales block. I help clients set up their estates to help ensure that doesn’t happen.
I have some smaller clients who I have represented for many years, and who are important to me because they started off with me when I was very young. I got a call from a client last fall who said, ‘I’m so glad you’re still practicing law, Francis.” And that made me feel really good. I’m just so glad I can continue to help my clients. And at some point in time if I’m not practicing law anymore, I know my clients will be very comfortable dealing with my estate planning colleagues at MPS.