Ginny Bryant and Fiona Van Dyck excel at making clients comfortable. “We make a wicked cup of tea,” says Bryant, a Boston native married to a Brit. In their line of work, this is an important skill, albeit one not generally mentioned in law school curriculum guides.
Bryant and Van Dyck are estate attorneys who have just opened a practice on Commons Way in Montgomery. They draft dry-sounding documents, including wills, trusts, and healthcare proxies. But, in making sure that clients’ affairs are in order, they need to do much more. “We ask about hopes and dreams,” says Van Dyck. “It is our job to find out where our clients want to go, and to help them get there.” Along with the hopes and dreams — for a secure retirement, for a wealth of options for children and grandchildren, for avoiding paying Uncle Sam a king’s ransom — there are less pleasant realities that have to be faced.
“We have to talk about doom and gloom,” says Van Dyck. “What happens when you die? What happens if your child dies before you do?”
“Sometimes they cry as we sit around the conference table,” says Van Dyck.
“Sometimes we cry along with them,” says Bryant.
The process of setting up an estate inevitably involves discussions of the end of life. It can be hard, but the pair insist that it is essential for their client base, people who have a lot to lose by not making an estate plan.
In answer to a question on whether their clients are high net worth individuals, Van Dyck and Bryant answer as one: “Our clients are like us,” say the young Princeton professionals, each married with children. “We’re all high net worth. High net worth is $675,000 in total assets. It’s the top 1 percent of the U.S. population. If you live in the Princeton area, and you own a house, you’re high net worth.”
The amount they mention, $675,000, is also where New Jersey’s estate tax kicks in. The state will take a big bite out of unprotected assets above that amount. The federal government’s estate tax does not come into play, at the moment, until assets pass $2 million, but that law is in flux, and could go down to $675,000 in a few years. “There are four versions of estate tax law in Congress,” says Bryant. “No one knows where it will go, but it’s sure that there will be changes. We’re on the verge of the greatest intergenerational exchange of wealth in the history of the world, and Uncle Sam will not miss out on taxing it.”
Paying the least amount of tax possible at death is a huge motivation for seeking estate planning, but at Van Dyck and Bryant’s practice, it is not the chief reason that people make an initial appointment to set up an estate plan.
“The birth of a child is a huge trigger,” says Van Dyck. Parents don’t necessarily come in right after the birth. Often they are held up, the attorneys say, by one of the most difficult decisions in estate planning.
“People put it off because they can’t decide on a guardian for their children,” says Bryant. There are so many issues involved. “Should it be your brothers or my brothers,” is how she summarizes the conundrum. Family loyalties come out. There can be competition. There are often lengthy discussions of the relative fitness of many, many relatives — and best friends.
This deadlock can keep new parents from forming an estate plan for years. “We generally see people when their children are between three and fifteen,” says Van Dyck.
She and her partner help parents to think through the all-important guardianship decision, and, as Bryant points out, “they each have their own will, so they don’t have to pick the same guardian. It’s better if they do, but they don’t have to.”
When a couple does come up with a guardian, it can be the attorneys’ job to gently help them think through all of the possible ramifications of the choice. Not uncommonly, a couple will choose one set of their parents for the job. When that is the case, they are asked about the grandparents’ ages. “If the grandparents are 80 and 81 and the child is three, they may be fit and healthy and able to care for the child if the parents die tomorrow, but will they be able to chase a six-year-old in three years?” Van Dyck says she may ask.
Actually, says Bryant, she likes to avoid the word “die” in this context whenever possible. “I say ‘if you are suddenly vaporized,’” she says with a laugh.
Making sure that children are well cared for is always a big concern, and it looms even larger when that child has special needs. Bryant, the mother of three-and-a-half-old Rachel, a pre-school student at Johnson Park elementary school, is especially tuned in to planning for special needs children. During the 11th week of her pregnancy, she learned that Rachel has Down Syndrome.
An estate lawyer since 1996, she was used to drawing up trusts for special needs children. She says that, before Rachel’s birth, she would attend carefully to the big issues in a trust plan, but would not be as attuned to “the fluffy stuff.”
“You know,” she explains, “the parents would say ‘she only likes her bread buttered on the left hand side.’” She listened to this minutia of preferences, but was not as concerned with it. “Now,” she says, “the shoe’s on the other foot.” Now, she says, she is intensely focused on “the fluffy stuff.”
Bryant is the president of the Down Syndrome Association of Central New Jersey, and it has been a busy summer. “The E-mails have been flying!” she says, with the same great good humor with which she addresses every topic. “First it was the movie ‘Tropic Thunder.’ Apparently there was a developmentally disabled character who was referred to as ‘retarded.’” What’s more, his condition was called an “affliction.” It’s not, says Bryant, echoing a sentiment she heard over and over again from the parents in her organization.
Now, of course, there is vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the mother of a four-month-old son with Down Syndrome. Like Bryant, Palin knew that her son would be born with the syndrome while she was still early in her pregnancy. She has been criticized by some columnists for going ahead and having the child.
Rather than being offended or hurt by commentary like this, Bryant says that talk about Palin’s decision to have her child could become “a wonderful teaching moment.”
“When I was pregnant, we didn’t know about Down Syndrome,” she says. “Our families didn’t know.” Now, some four-and-a-half years later, she does know, and she’s hoping that, through publicity about Palin’s son, others will know, too.
“My daughter is adorable,” she says. “You’d want to eat her up. Raising her is pretty much normal, no, wait, you’re not supposed to say ‘normal.’ Anyway, it’s glorious. It’s not for everyone. It’s work, but it’s not more difficult work (than raising a child without Down Syndrome). It’s not a burden.”
While Rachel is enjoying the first days of pre-school, Van Dyck’s children, Duncan, a fifth grader, and Amanda, a third grader, are also caught up in the new school year. “It was a crazy day here yesterday,” says Van Dyck on the day after school started. “We had to get the kids off to school, and then we had an appointment at 9:30.”
It was crazy, but manageable. Van Dyck and Bryant agree that estate law is an area of practice that affords a good lifestyle balance. “We don’t have a lot of emergencies,” says Van Dyck. This contrasts to her former work as a corporate litigation attorney, where she represented clients, including GM and Komatsu. Working all night was not unusual. “I would work until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and then be back at work at 7 a.m. if there was a trial,” she recalls.
A graduate of Rutgers (Class of 1987) and Rutgers Law School, she began practicing in Philadelphia and most recently worked for a firm in Short Hills. The work was contentious, and the commute was brutal. “It was one-and-a-half hours in the morning,” she says. “In the afternoon, if I left between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. it was two-and-a-half hours, so I ended up just staying late. I never saw my kids.”
Van Dyck says that she chose law because she wanted a field where she could work with — and for — people. Corporate litigation turned out to be a poor match. Van Dyck shared her discontent with neighbors on Western Way in Princeton, where she and Bryant have long been neighbors.
“She was telling everyone — everyone but me — that she wished she could have work like mine,” says Bryant, who has always practiced estate law. Bryant, a graduate of Northeastern who holds a JD from Suffolk University in Massachusetts (Class of 1996), chose the field right off, knowing that it was a perfect match. She never vacillated on her choice of her broader profession either. “I knew at age seven that I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says.
Why? “My mother raised three children without much money,” she says. “I looked around. I saw that lawyers made money, and I decided I wanted to become one.”
She and Van Dyck finally got to talking about reshaping their careers around Christmastime last year. “It started out as a joke,” says Van Dyck. “We had been talking about what we wanted to do. We had similar thoughts on what we wanted.” The pair quickly decided to join forces and open their own firm. “Once we decided it was simple,” says Bryant. “We found a space and we were in business six months later.”
The two laugh about how perfect the name of their firm is, very high class, and give all the credit to their husbands. “We married well,” jokes Bryant. “Our husbands have great names. If we had used out maiden names, the firm would have been Bergonzoni Morahan. It’s a mouthful! We would have had to be personal injury lawyers.”
Bryant’s husband, Steve, is “so not a lawyer,” she says. “He’s in international business. He’s a scientist.” Implying that her husband enjoys bringing his varied work home, she adds, “our dining room table tends to be interesting.”
Van Dyck’s husband, Greg, is a deputy attorney general for the State of New Jersey.
While Van Dyck and Bryant enjoy the relative freedom that their area of practice gives them in dealing with the first hectic back to school weeks, they do admit that there are times that they have to drop everything to attend to their clients. These situations can be light hearted, when a family heading to Europe on a Monday realize on a Saturday that they have neglected to draw up wills, and would feel much better doing so. But they also include what Bryant terms “death bed calls.” Surprisingly, she looks upon the latter fondly.
“Those are some of my best memories,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to give people peace of mind, to let them know that their families will be taken care of.”
Bryant Van Dyck LLC, 316 Commons Way, Montgomery Commons, Princeton 08540; 609-924-0094; fax, 609-924-0093. Fiona Van Dyck and Ginny Bryant, partners.