Specializing in Estate Planning, Probate Law, Conservatorships, and Guardianships, local attorney Cheri Elson enjoys helping her clients plan not only for their future but for those they love. Together with her husband, Adam Sperber, they go above and beyond to make sure every detail has been covered and more.
Cheri takes pride in the time she takes to explain and navigate agreements that leave her clients feeling empowered, respected and pleased with their decisions. In today’s interview I catch up with Cheri and Adam to learn more about their successful practice here in Ashland, Oregon.
Cheri and Adam welcome back to LocalsGuide and thank you for joining us for your annual interview.
Thank you? We are celebrating 5 years here in Ashland. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed! We continue to feel blessed every day that we call this beautiful place home.
Thanks… we love providing great information to our clients and we are grateful for all the community support we have received…
Cheri, over the past two years you have become specifically focused on Estate Planning, Probate Law, and Estate Administration. Will you please tell us more about the passion you have for this sector of law?
I was a paralegal for several years prior to attending law school. One of the reasons for this was that I did not want to become an attorney without really knowing that was what I wanted to do with my life. In 1996, I happened to be hired by an estate planning attorney, and quickly realized that this was an area of law that I both thoroughly enjoyed and could spend my life practicing. As an estate planning attorney, I have a unique opportunity to really get to know my clients. I need to understand their financial situation, so as to properly address any estate tax issues. Additionally, I need to understand their family dynamics so that I can craft a plan that will be executed smoothly and without family strife. Staying in touch with my clients over the years is equally important – an estate plan is only as good as it is up-to-date with one’s current situation. Plans should be reviewed routinely to make sure any necessary adjustments over time are put in place. Maintaining an ongoing relationship with clients is also very important to Adam. All of this means we are able to have a really lovely and well-rounded experience with our clients and it’s a part of our job we both really enjoy.
Cheri, what are the most common misconceptions you run across in estate planning?
There seems to be a mistaken belief that an estate plan is not necessary until we are older, often near retirement. In actuality, every adult (meaning anyone over the age of 18) needs an estate plan. What that plan looks like depends on a person’s financial and family situation. For the young adult, that plan may consist of only an Advance Directive for Health Care (naming someone to make medical decisions if they are unable to) and a Durable Power of Attorney (naming someone to make financial decisions if they are unable to). As we accumulate assets over our lifetimes, Wills and Trusts become more important as they manage how our assets are to be distributed at our death, as well as naming Guardians for our own young children.
Cheri, what happens if I DON’T die?
I’m really glad you asked this question, Shields, because it really is important and one I often feel is missed. Estate plans are not designed only to come into effect at our deaths; a well-crafted estate plan also addresses the situation where we are still alive and no longer able to care for ourselves. Durable Powers of Attorneys (DPA), Advance Directives for Health Care (ADHC), and Trusts are all designed to come into play during our lives at a time we are incapacitated. Only the Will remains inactive until our deaths. The reality is that the older we are, the more likely it will be that someone else must manage our finances for us, and possibly make medical decisions for us as well. With a current DPA and ADHC, we can rest assured that the person or people we want making those decisions for us will have the formal authority to do so. Without an estate plan in place, we can end up in court, possibly with family members fighting over who makes the decisions and what those decisions are. For me, the maximum degree of self-control I can have, the better. This means having all of my estate planning documents in place so that I know the right people will be in charge if anything happens to me.
What are the unforeseen consequences of not planning ahead?
The best decisions are not made in a time of crisis. When we are under stress, in “fight-or-flight” mode, our pre-frontal cortex is not working at its best and our ability to reason is impaired. The best estate plan is one which is put together in a time of calm, when all of the issues involved can be addressed and discussed so that the over-all best plan is created. When I have clients who come in with an emergency or under other stressful circumstances, we run the risk of not gathering all of the information needed to create a strong plan. This can result in unforeseen consequences down the road. At its worst, waiting too long results in not being able to create a plan at all – usually because the person who needs the plan is no longer able to participate in creating it – and we can end up in court, which is always more expensive and stressful than having things in place beforehand.
How often should agreements be updated?
As we move through life, what we want and who we want in charge changes. Estate plans are designed to grow and develop as we do, and would be reviewed periodically. I recommend reviewing one’s estate plan on an annual basis – changes may not be necessary each year, but looking at it annually will help keep it fresh in your mind, as well as help ensure any necessary changes are caught and addressed quickly.
Please talk more about your free annual review.
I believe strongly that an estate plan is only as good as it is up-to-date and accurate with my client’s present situation. This means that I need to do everything possible to help my clients keep their plans current. One of the ways I do this is by offering free annual reviews, giving us an opportunity at least once a year to sit down together, catch up, and make sure the plan still works.
Cheri, what is unconsciousness incompetence?
Psychology talks about four levels of competence: Unconscious Incompetence (where the learner is unaware a gap in knowledge exists), Conscious Incompetence (where the learner is aware of the gap in knowledge, opening the door to learn), Conscious Competence (where the skill exists to perform a task, but only with conscious thought and hard work), and Unconscious Competence (where the individual has enough experience and skill to perform the task easily).
Many of my clients are in the Unconscious Incompetence stage in their knowledge of estate planning, which makes sense since most of them have never engaged in it on any level. As the expert, I need to understand this and be able to tailor my explanation of the process in a way that will make sense to them. I also need to know what questions to ask in order to get to a deeper level of planning than they may be aware is even necessary. I can’t expect my clients to know what is needed to have a well-mapped out distribution scheme, because they do not know all the possible consequences of any one decision. As the professional who has been in this field for over 20 years, I have a duty to help them work through any potential issues, resulting in a concise estate plan that will effectively care for them if necessary, and ultimately distribute out their estate as they intend.
Cheri, you have always been a very creative person. How are you able to express this in your day-to-day work and life?
Although some might not see it, estate planning is a very creative area of law. Everyone’s needs and desires are different and each client has their unique set of circumstances. My job is to translate those desires and circumstances into a written plan that is clear and easy to execute when the time comes. That takes creativity. I don’t try to fit my clients’ plans into pre-set templates, but rather I create a unique plan that takes into consideration all of the aspects of their life and what is important to them. I really enjoy drafting a complex distribution scheme so that my clients’ desires are fully realized and everything passes just the way they want to.
Adam, what type of feedback do you get from your clients when they meet with Cheri?
Clients often marvel at Cheri’s passion about estate planning. They are thrilled at how thoroughly Cheri goes through their estate plan. For instance, the signing appointment for an estate plan is scheduled for two hours. In this time, Cheri goes through all of the components of the plan in great detail, the goal being to make certain that the plan that has been prepared aligns precisely with the expectations of the client, and that the client understands how it all works. Another comment I hear, and I believe it is a corollary to the time Cheri spends with her clients, is how understandable the plan is. Often clients expect documents to be full of legal jargon. While Cheri’s documents contain all the necessary “legalese,” they are straightforward and clear for the lay reader. Another common response is a sense of relief that a comprehensive plan is in place. Estate planning can be an area of procrastination and both Cheri and I find that once the process is complete, there is a palpable sense of accomplishment that the plan is in place and peace that everything is now taken care of.
Together you guys are great champions for the arts. Will you please talk more about this and how you are utilizing your work to get involved and help support the arts community of Southern Oregon?
We are very involved in the arts and the amount of cultural events happening in the Rogue Valley is one of the things we love most about living here! We moved to Ashland, in great part, because of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, only to discover our wonderful symphony, choirs, and other concert series which take place here. It is not uncommon for us to have to choose between cultural events as they often overlap! We both sit on the Board of the Southern Oregon Repertory Singers, and Cheri sings in the choir as well. We have been working with the Repertory Singers specifically in the area of planned giving and legacy giving, which are ways fans of the arts can continue to support their favorite groups through their estate planning. We have also recently joined with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in their legacy giving campaign, as their Legacy Giving Legal Partners, offering assistance and guidance for those wanting to be a part of their Southampton Society. We are both deeply invested in the long-term financial and artistic success of all of the arts in our valley, and our involvement with these organizations is one way we can put that “investment” into action.
You were also named business of the year by Ashland Library. Please say more.
That’s correct, Shields. We were honored to be named the Friends of the Ashland Public Library 2019 Business Partner of the Year. Cheri provided some pro bono assistance to them, which for us, was simply a way to give back to our community.
Are there any last thoughts or comments you would like to share?
Five years after moving here, we still wake up every morning feeling so blessed to live here and call Ashland home. To have been able to serve our great community these past two years has been icing on the cake and we look forward to many more years of service!
Drescher Elson Sperber, PC
21 S. 2nd Street, Ashland, OR 97520