Issue: October, 2006
Author: Mary Anne Heyman
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A Wish List for Personal Injury Attorneys: One Plaintiff's Journey
It hadn’t even been a week since my husband Dave left the hospital. Friends and family alike were asking if we were going to sue the truck driver. We were 23 and 26 in 1977. All we really wanted was to get back to normal.
Just shy of 30 years later, my husband, although severely disabled, continues to do well in spite of a stroke suffered as a result of his injuries. As for me, I used my informal training in navigating workers’ compensation, Social Security, individual health insurance, three college educations, investments, estate and retirement planning to prepare me for my Master of Science degree in Financial Planning and present practice in Fort Collins.
Dave and I are still grateful to our personal injury attorney who led us through almost six years of litigation toward a successful settlement in 1982. At the same time, I’ve often wished that he would have done some things differently—and armed us with some tools to lead us through the challenges we would encounter post civil suit.
This article offers my “wish list” for personal injury attorneys. I sincerely hope it validates the work of personal injury practices and encourages personal injury attorneys to “walk a mile in the shoes of the plaintiff.” I truly cannot imagine our life today in the absence of the good professionals who navigated us through the civil suit process.
Getting Ready for Trial
Let’s face it. Lawyer jokes and “ambulance chaser” references get laughs until you need a good personal injury attorney. Our search began and ended with my father asking his corporate attorney and Dave’s tax attorney brother-in-law asking his colleagues for names. Both sources produced the same attorney. Years later, I took this “lesson number one” with me to my own financial planning practice: Referrals are earned through respect for the client, hard work and commitment to solving their problems.
In our first meeting with the attorney he told us the facts:
Dave was worth more dead than alive.
There might not be an entity with enough insurance or assets to cover our loss.
While we had a good case, there was a chance we could lose and we would owe him for his expenses.
If he took our case, it would seem like he was ignoring us until our court date got closer, but then we would have his undivided attention.
And finally, based on Dave’s continued health problems, it was best not to file too soon.
I wish he had told us that while money can’t buy happiness, this money, if won, would be needed to replace the income Dave would never be able to earn again.
He did perceive our inability to fully comprehend the loss, and urged Dave’s trusted doctors to open our eyes to the lasting effects of the injuries. And, the most important thing he did for us that first day was to gain our confidence by asking us to provide a framed family photo so he could look into our children’s eyes when he worked on our case. Oh yeah, we were in good hands!
Anxiety grew to a new high for us as the trial approached. I wish our attorney had told us sooner that we would be able to testify in private. Dave and I avoided thinking too deeply about how our lives were changed for fear of upsetting our parents and loved ones during the trial. Rather than concentrating on our needs, we worried about loved ones hearing that we weren’t going to have more children, or that Dave couldn’t throw a ball or run the bases with the kids because it gave him headaches and made his scars hurt.
Crunching the Numbers
As offers began to appear and disappear, Dave told me, “If they offer us $600,000, we will take the money and put this behind us.” Where did he come up with that number? I wish our attorney had assured us there was an experienced number cruncher in a back room tallying and calculating our projected financial loss so that we could realistically answer questions such as:
Who determines the value of lost income opportunity?
Does the calculation take into account lost opportunity to advance within the company and increase income?
How expensive will three college educations be in the years 1993-2000?
Will I have to work? Should I finish my teaching degree or look for a better-paying career?
Finally, in October 1982, we walked out of the attorney’s office with a check for six figures and a monthly income guaranteed for the longer of 20 years or the life of Dave. Whew! We were scared, relieved, exhausted, you name it!
But I had questions. If Dave wasn’t here in 20 years, would I be financially secure or would I be destitute? How should we invest the money given our uncertain future? Why were all the checks made out to Dave when my name was clearly on the lawsuit, too?
I wish our attorney had armed us with the business card of one or two financial professionals to interview and consider hiring to guide us through our next challenges. Fortunately, we met a very good “fatherly” type stockbroker who worked for a large wire-house. He sold us mutual funds that were appropriate for our family needs, but he could have sold us ocean front property in Arizona for all we knew. While it was a relief to have the money invested, we still lacked a financial plan of any type.
Now that I have my Master’s in financial planning, I can look back and see how many times we came dangerously close to financial disaster. All the energy, expense and time expended from our attorney and other professionals might have been wasted in the absence of good financial advice.
Hindsight Is 20-20
From our experience as plaintiffs, and from my experience as a financial planner, I would like to offer a few suggestions to personal injury attorneys:
Provide a framework for your clients so they survive the arduous civil suit process and are prepared for a positive or negative outcome.
o Urge plaintiffs to avoid the pitfalls of inappropriate spending and borrowing in anticipation of a large award.
o Present the financial reality of what the client has lost and how much money it will take to live their new imposed lifestyle.
o Keep expectations in check by providing a realistic minimum amount of an expected award as well as a reminder of what the plaintiff might owe if the outcome is not successful.
o Encourage the plaintiff to take a cooling off period of at least six months at the conclusion of the suit for personal reflection. For us, the temptation to rush into financial decisions such as paying off debt, purchasing large-ticket items, investing in the stock market, and even treating those who supported us during our ordeal was almost irresistible.
Help your clients find an ethical, competent financial planner.
o Look for the Certified Financial Planner or CFP® designation. The CFP® designation is earned and maintained through a rigorous process of education, a 10-hour examination, continuing ethics requirements and a minimum of three years’ experience. The CFP® Board-registered education programs include all of the following courses:
Financial Planning General Principles
Retirement and Employee Benefit Planning
o Interview, in person, planners you are considering for referrals. Ask:
Why did you become a financial planner?
Do you specialize in one particular area?
How established is your firm?
How many years of experience do you have?
What is your mission statement?
Finally, have two or three planners in mind. Ask other attorneys for the names of financial planners to whom they refer their clients.
Mary Anne Heyman and her husband live in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is a financial planner affiliated with Financial Design & Management, Inc., an SEC Registered Investment Advisor located at 401 West Mountain Ave, Suite 100, Fort Collins, CO 80521. Financial Design & Management has over 70 years of combined financial planning experience. She is a Registered Representative with Royal Alliance Associates, Inc, member NASD/SIPC.
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