Carol Blonder: My next guest is Becky Cholewka, and she is the owner of Cholewka Law. Becky, you’ve got to tell everybody a little bit about how you got to be an attorney.
Becky Cholewka: It starts way back when in junior high school, actually. I found out about Abraham Lincoln and I was impressed with him. He was a lawyer, self‑taught, and he just really wanted to help people in his neighborhood and advocate for people. For some reason in junior high, that really stuck with me.
It was a lifelong process to get there. I’m a second‑career girl, took a while to get that law degree. I’ve absolutely loved helping others.
Carol: You have a story. I know what we are going to talk because you…tell everybody the kind of attorney you are.
Becky: I mainly do estate planning. I help people with wills, and trusts, and powers of attorney, helping families stay out of court in emergency situations. Having them be prepared for a time of crisis or when a death happens in a family. That’s what I focus on.
Carol: Listen up everybody because I have to say, I, too, have been through something. I know you, too, have. Why don’t you tell about what happened to you.
Becky: Lots of stuff but I’ll start with my dad. My dad actually died unexpectedly when I was 19 years old. I was in college. Not a phone call you’re expecting to hear at 19, it was a heart attack. It was four days after his 47th birthday.
I’ve seen this from a lot of different angles from a very young age, and was very thankful how my dad planned and my sister and I. I just wanted to be able to help other moms and dads be able to do that for their families, as well. It was a very hard time to go through. You’ve had some of those own experiences with emergencies.
Carol: Everyone, they don’t think about it until someone passes away and then all of the sudden you think, “Oh, they would never do something like that to me.” They do. [laughs] They do.
Becky: I get in my office all the time, “I’m not going to die yet. I have at least another 20 years.” I always like, “My dad died four days after his 47th birthday. I’m pretty sure that he probably felt the same way and thought that he was going to live forever and live a long life.” We just never know.
Carol: Two things. One, I have to say, dying unexpectedly. I had a brother that out of the blue died and I felt sorry for his children, but more so ‑‑ and we will talk about you though, too ‑‑ is I want people to understand the importance of this, too. You think you might have everything done, and you might even think you have it done correctly, but you don’t. That is what happened to me.
I know my dad did everything he could to make sure that we were all taken care of and fair, and all of that. That one little thing that he didn’t do, that he just thought that my brothers and him had a gentleman agreement or whatever, and people way back then that’s how they believed. Now, my father, if he only knew, would be rolling over in his grave.
What I say is, for everybody, I implore all of you out there, listen to what she has to say. Don’t put your head in the sand, it’s really important. Let’s talk about estate planning and why it’s so important. What is the first thing you would say that people always forget to do?
Becky: People, I think just what you said, they think that they’ve done everything. Maybe they read something on the Internet or their family told them that, “Oh, you just need to do this.” A lot of times, they just don’t know what they don’t know.
Being proactive and going and seeing an attorney who handles this type of practice area, that’s your only defense, because online documents or document preparers…you get a document in place and you think you’re protected, and then you realize when you need to go and use that document, you’re not. It’s because it’s not just a piece of paper. It’s making sure that that solution actually is going to work for you.
Carol: Exactly. There are documents and then there’s documents that work.
Becky: Exactly. That’s one of our tag lines, actually. Documents that work.
Carol: I come up with them all the time.
Becky: Thank you, Carol.[laughter]
Carol: You made a big point, too, when you said a lot of people go online. What are your thoughts about that?
Becky: I understand where people are hoping and trying to do what’s best for their family. Again, they just don’t realize what they don’t know. There’s a judge who calls those online type documents penny wise, pound foolish, because we usually end up in court some way, somehow, trying to fix things on the back‑end because they’re not done properly on the front‑end or it’s not the entire solution that we needed to craft, it’s a piece of it and we’ve forgotten a part.
Carol: Let’s talk about maybe something like obviously how…in a story you want to tell them where it helps them. A good story.
Becky: A good story. I love stories. Actually, I’ve used every single one of these documents in my own family. It’s not just I know the legal sense, but also how does it actually work in real life.
My mom has had two major heart attacks in her life. She’s still with us. She’s a trooper, but we had one of those while we were on a family vacation in Colorado with her. Not only are you now dealing with a family crisis and emergency, you are not even at your home, which adds a whole different complexity.
One of the things I have people tell me all the time is, “Oh, I have this great binder of documents and we’ve done our plan.” I’m always like, “Great, did you give copies to people who are going to act for you in an emergency?”
Luckily, I had access to my mom’s documents while we were in Colorado. It wasn’t just stuck in her binder in her apartment. I had digital copies I could present to the hospital, which we needed to use.
I hear from people all of the time, “Oh, well I never gave anybody”, “Oh, they don’t know where it’s located in my house.” Things aren’t going to work if people don’t know they even exist. Big tip, if you have a plan out there, at least make sure your family knows where it is and has copies.
Carol: That’s right. Not only that, if you have a plan…I have a plan, but it’s certainly not even done. A lot of people…you start something, and life goes on, and life changes, too. It’s really important that you update those. Do you do that a lot in your office?
Becky: We do a lot of that in our office. I always like to tell people there’s something they need to do, and there’s something that I need to do.
Carol: What’s that?
Becky: I need to worry about all the legal changes. This is state law, federal law, tax law, that changes all the time and we need to stay up‑to‑date on all the laws to see what we need to change in our plans, to make sure that they continue to work.
For families, I encourage them to take their estate plan out once a year, dust off the cover…because it’s usually all dusty, and open it. There’s a novel idea, and just take a look at it, and see who have they named to be their back‑up decision makers, and is that still who they want or is that person still in their life?
Maybe their sister‑in‑law was their healthcare power of attorney and she has dementia. She can no longer act for them. We always need to update because your life will change, too.
Carol: You always want to update when they say, “You’re out of the will.” Then they go exactly where it is and they get it all taken care of. They procrastinate on something like this and I don’t understand. I know and when I listen and I talk to a lot of different people all the time. The importance of it is so big. Why an attorney?
Becky: Again, we specialize in this area in the sense of we know what this is. This isn’t just a piece of paper like we said before. We understand how not only the laws work but how it also is working in practical life. Just because you have a financial power attorney in place for example, doesn’t mean somebody needs to accept it.
There’s no law that says a bank needs to accept the power of attorney. People don’t understand that. Chase bank for example won’t accept one that’s more than six months old.
It’s our way of helping explain and tell people what all of this stuff means in real life, in practical life so that they can understand how it’s going to affect them and their own family with their own situations.
Carol: Really it’s not the person that passes away, it’s everybody else that’s left. It’s really sad because I know people really mean well and they want to do the right thing but something…it seems like everyone I know, and I’ve obviously in that age group who are now all that things are happening with people that I know, almost everyone I know has had an issue.
It’s been very hard for the person that gets hurt. It’s terrible. Talk about probate and things like that that can happen.
Becky: Probate is when we have to go to court when someone dies to have the court oversee distribution of their assets. In Arizona about 3,000 to 5,000 would be what I would call “the cost for a simple probate.” On average about nine months to a year but every state is different.
It’s a lot of time and expense on the back‑end if we have to go through that process. It’s also at a time where someone just lost a loved one. They’re also dealing with their own loss and hurt and pain with having mom or dad die or whomever it is. Now, they are having to work with attorneys and tax people and it’s very emotionally overwhelming at that time, too.
Carol: When is the right time to call you?
Becky: Anytime. Everyone over 18 should have a plan in place.
Carol: There’s people that are getting married. You’re going to have children, a family. There’s all different ways and you can updated it as you go along, right?
Becky: Yes. All of these documents you can amend so long as you have the mental capacity to do so.
Carol: You just brought up another good point because I know there’s a lot of people that they end up in the hospital or in a coma or something happens really bad. You have any examples that you want to talk about with that?
Becky: Yeah. This happens more times than you would think. We would have a family member call and say, “Hey mom’s in the hospital. We need to get a power of attorney.” We start asking questions, “Well, are they now on pain medications? What’s the mental capacity? Do they have Alzheimer or dementia? How far is it?”
Many times I have to tell them, “I’m sorry, there’s no capacity there for them actually to even create a document. You’re going to have to go to court now.”
Carol: Especially with the rules now. Everything is changed. They made it a lot harder. My God, you can’t even talk to a doctor for a family member because if you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in.
Becky: No. My mother‑in‑law actually found that out the hard way because my father‑ in‑law was in the hospital. She didn’t have a HIPAA release form getting access to his information. She had to make decisions for him at a time where the doctors couldn’t tell her what was going on.
Carol: It’s awful. Can you tell everybody, do you do free consultations? How does it work when they come to you?
Becky: When you come to us we have a phone call. We get some general information for you to maximize your time with an attorney as you come into the office. We do not offer free consultations because we are actually giving you legal advice as you come in and meet with us.
Then we’ll be able to tell you…figure out a plan what’s best for you and your family, give you then a price to move forward if you’d like to move forward with our office at that point.
Carol: It’s very important that people do this and don’t put it off because we’ve seen it time and time and time again. Some people think estate planning that you have to have a big estate. You have to have a home or you have to have things.
I’ve heard people say it. Even I remember I think I heard my ex one say, “I don’t really have that much.” You know what? It’s important because it doesn’t matter what you have, right?
Becky: Correct. Most people that’s one of our biggest mistakes actually that we see. It doesn’t matter how much you have. You actually are alive and well right now and if something should happen to you we need documents in place to have somebody come in and help your decision maker.
Sometimes some of these documents have nothing to do with your assets when you die. Most of them actually have to do with you right now and how can we assist you while you’re alive..
Carol: Tell again what they would say when they call you. Do they have to have papers together? What is it that they need when they come? This is a very important first consultation with you.
Becky: Yes. A lot of people are very intimidated by coming in and talking to attorneys. We try to make it as easy as possible. That’s why we do a conversation over the phone to collect information that we need.
If you have a plan in place bring that in so we can review it. Other than that, I just need people. I need to have a conversation and we’re just going to talk things out.
Carol: Two, I think you’re right when you say, “People don’t know what they don’t know.” I also think, too, that people don’t know how they make it so hard with this topic because nobody wants to talk about it.
If you do, let’s say you have money and you’re children are talking to you. My father didn’t have a ton of money or anything like that, but he never made this an easy topic. We never talked about it. That happens a lot in families.
Becky: It does. There some families that we really will coach…sometimes we’ll have families come into my office actually and I’ll talk them through it because it’s so difficult to have conversation at their own dinner table.
Sometimes it’s counseling families about, how do you say things to your children? Sometimes it’s, how do you start having this conversation with your parents if your parents don’t want to talk about. A lot of what we do is counseling and advice just for our individual families.
Carol: People should go in and just have advice just on that. A whole family get together because usually, at the end unfortunately if you don’t, someone gets hurt. I don’t think that’s what the people who die that’s not what they want.
Becky: Absolutely. It’s never the intent to have this go sideways, but if you don’t plan properly and take steps on the front‑end, that’s usually what we see happen on the back‑end.
Carol: Sure, what would be some of your final words for everybody out there that you would want to know about your office and you?
Becky: You know what? One of the reasons why we’re successful at Cholewka Law is we have people, not only that love what we do, but we’ve been through a lot of these own experiences. We can really relates to people about emergency situations and sudden deaths.
When you’re able to talk to somebody who’s walked to those shoes, it gives you a little bit more comfort to realize, “OK, they know what they’re doing. They’re here to help. They want us to be able to not have to have those same situation.”
Carol: When they call, do they talk to you or who do they get? Sometimes people want to know that they’re watching you now?
Becky: Right now actually we talk to Peg in our office who’s wonderful.
Carol: I’ve met her before.
Becky: You met her before?
Carol: She’s a doll.
Becky: She’s lovely. She’s going to be retiring at the end of the year.
Carol: Call now.
Becky: She’s great. We absolutely love Peg.
Carol: At least they go through her and then they can find out some more information that they need to through you. It’s so true about what you said especially that people don’t know what they don’t know. I’m going to say this to everybody out there, I know if it happened to me, it could happen to anybody.
The most important thing that I want people to realize is that you shouldn’t put your head in the sand. Give them a call. Find out what it is that they can do for you to make sure that really things are taken care of.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Here’s the big thing everybody, is there are documents that work and then there’s documents that don’t work. That’s why it’s a really good idea. Don’t go online. Give them a call and they’ll talk to you and tell you exactly how they can help you so you can have some peace of mind.