Cindy Speaker: Good afternoon, welcome to our Facebook live broadcast. My name is Cindy Speaker. I have with me today Karen Byrnes-Noon, and she is with Michael J. O’Connor and Associates. She’s going to talk with us today about wills and estates, something important to all of us. So, Karen, thanks for being with us today.
Karen Noon: Well thank you, Cindy. I appreciate you allowing me to be here today. Thank you.
Cindy Speaker: You bet. Karen, tell us a little bit about your background and how long you’ve been an attorney.
Karen Noon: Well, I’ve been an attorney for over 30 years, and I know that when I say that, it sounds such a long time, but it is a long time. Most of my work, I was in a district attorney’s office. I was in Lycoming County district attorney’s office, Lebanon County, and then I was where our home base is in Schuylkill County for over 25 years. I was actually the district attorney for the last two years of me being in the office, which translates … Which we’re going to be talking about in a little bit, to much litigation experience. I had hearings last week, and while I was preparing for a hearing, the woman said to me, “Do you do a lot of hearings?” And I told her, I said, “Just so that you understand, this is a hearing in front of a workers’ compensation judge and it’s obviously very important to you. I have tried jury trials. I’ve tried homicide cases. I’ve tried horrendous sexual assault cases. She said, “I feel comfortable with you.”
I think that that’s really important to understand that all of the attorneys in our office have that litigation background. I think it translates well into what we do in our office, but I’ve been an attorney for 30 years. I have a lot of litigation experience and I try to talk to my clients well in advance of hearings, because I think that’s really important as well to be prepared for your hearing, because I know that if you’re not prepared for a hearing what can happen. So it’s important to us to have our clients prepared and be prepared for this case, which is obviously very important for our clients.
Cindy Speaker: Right, right. Well you mentioned the idea that all that litigation experience translates into your work now. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Karen Noon: I sure can. With having 30 years of trying very serious cases, I look at a workers’ compensation case, I look at any case that we deal with here in the office as a serious case, because it affects the lives of the people who are our clients. When we do that, and when I’m preparing for something, I tell people that my experience is that we have to have all of our ducks in a row, which is up front. We have to have the medical evidence. We have to have … Making sure that you have all of your doctors who you treat with, everything up front, because when we prepare like that … When we prepare a case, and I refer to it as ‘have all your ducks in a row,’ the hearing goes so much better for client, so much better for the claimant.
As I mentioned, I had two hearings last week, and preparing the client, I was on the phone with her about two days or three days before the hearing for almost an hour and a half. I think that’s important. I think that’s really important in order for the person to know what’s expected of them during the hearing, obviously to tell the truth, but also to know what’s going to … How is this going to play out? What is the defense council going to ask me in that regard?
You had asked about my role here at Michael J. O’Connor and Associates, and I kind of … Those of you who like baseball, which I tend to watch a lot of baseball at this time of year, I like to refer to myself as the pinch hitter. We have wonderful attorneys in this office, and the fact that we are very busy. Sometimes, another person has to step in and do the hearing.
The only reason that Attorney O’Connor would want someone like me in the office is because of the fact that I have such litigation experience. He knows and the attorneys in the office know that I’m not going to go to a hearing unprepared. It just won’t happen. It’s not in my nature. It’s not who I am. I can’t do it. I won’t be sleeping the night before. So, I talk to my clients, I make sure that they understand what’s going on, I talk to them afterwards. As I said, I think that it’s … I know that they appreciate that, at least I would hope that they do, and we try very hard at our hearings to make sure that they have wonderful representation.
Cindy Speaker: Yeah, yeah. I know they do. Your office has a tremendous reputation.
Karen Noon: Well, thank you. Thank you, and it’s obviously with regard to the hard work of many, many people in this office.
Cindy Speaker: Yeah, yeah. Well Karen, talk a little bit about power of attorney, health care power of attorney, and those types of issues, and how important it is for the average person to have them in place.
Karen Noon: Powers of attorney … When I explain them to people, and recently I gave a little talk to the Practical Business Association, I brought in a pair of shoes. Of course, everybody was like, “Why does she have a pair of shoes in front of her?” I said, “The way to describe power of attorney is that you’re basically asking another person to walk in your shoes.” If you can go over to the bank and take all of your money out of that bank, so can your power of attorney. So it is before you make the decision of having someone to be your power of attorney, make sure it’s a person that you trust impeccably. That’s one of the ways I try to describe how important this particular document is. It is important-
Cindy Speaker: That’s a great analogy.
Karen Noon: And the other thing is that it’s really important to get this before a person is … While the person is confident and before they turn to having issues that they can’t make their own decisions.
Cindy Speaker: Right.
Karen Noon: We get phone calls all the time about, “my mother or my father has dementia and we would like to have a power of attorney.” The problem is, is that you cannot under any circumstances draft a power of attorney when a person is incompetent. It’s a whole other procedure. It’s full guardianship, and it’s really … It’s lots more things that have to be done. A doctor has to testify at a hearing, all these people have to be notified through the mail. It’s a lot of paperwork, and it’s a much more complicated proceeding that a power of attorney which can be done, as I said, in our office. But it is a great deal of power to give to someone, but it is also important that people have these documents in place because we never know what’s going to happen to us.
Cindy Speaker: Right.
Karen Noon: We just don’t ever know that. If we don’t have them in place, then a person cannot take care of the other person’s bills, cannot take care of the other person’s house. It’s just so many … It’s just the way it is. It’s the way banks operate because … I mean I understand their position. They want to protect your money.
Cindy Speaker: Yeah.
Karen Noon: When the health care power of attorney actually had … A very sad situation, but it was also something that reminded me how important health care powers of attorney are. I had a friend, very young. She was very young, and something happened to her, and it was very sad. It was not going to work out well for her and it did not work out well for her. She did pass away, but one of the things that her husband and her family said, that they were so glad that she had done a health care power of attorney prior to this illness, and well before this illness because it is very difficult for family members to make decisions. Your medical terms are thrown at you, so many other people are asking you, “What do you want to do? What do you want to do?” They didn’t have to make those decisions because she had made them already. That’s the advantages of a power of attorney and a health care power of attorney.
Your family is dealing with a variety of different issues with reference to your medical care. That’s what I tell people: What you’re doing with these documents, you are making your family’s life easier. There is no one, no one who doesn’t want to do that. They want to be able to make the decisions easier on their family.
I didn’t really get a chance to speak to her husband, but I know through friends and family that they were so grateful that she had put this health care power of attorney together a very long time ago, and they knew what she wanted. She did not want to have these invasive procedures. She didn’t want to be on life support for the next 15 years. That’s not what she wanted. It was such a comforting … And I know that’s very hard to look at it that way, but from the family’s point of view, they weren’t the ones who had to make the decision. She had already done that. Decisions were made. Yes, she passed away, and they had to deal with all of those issues, and again, very sad.
But, it does take some of that little bit of … I just can’t make that decision right now, especially when something horrendous happens. I hope that nothing horrendous happens to anyone. We all do that, but unfortunately it’s life, and things do happen. When something happens like this, it’s really important to know that there’s documents in place to deal with them … Legal documents, and we can help people with that. We can help people with their powers of attorney, with their health care powers of attorney, and I know that you want me to go into the wills and estates as well.
Cindy Speaker: Well, let me ask you a question first. With the health care power of attorney, what happens if someone does not have that in place? Suppose they’re 50 years old and have a heart attack. If that is not in place, are the doctors … Do they have to use heroic measures?
Karen Noon: Okay, and this is the problem. This is the reason that the health care power of attorney is so important. This particular woman, both of her parents are still alive, and her husband as well. So what if … I mean she had one, but what if she didn’t and her parents say one thing, and her husband says another? Then you’re starting into a legal battle. The parents say, “Oh, we want to keep her alive.” The husband says, “That’s not what she wanted. She told me all the time that I didn’t want …” It gets very, very messy.
Then, what does happen? Do they file documents as to whose will is it going to be? Is it her parents? Is it her husband and her children? It gets very, very messy. That’s why as I said, no one wants to think about being 50 years old and having a heart attack, or a stroke, or anything like that, but unfortunately it happens. When it does happen, it is … Again, I don’t like to use the word ‘relief,’ but I think the family felt comforted that she had made the decisions. This is what I want. If I’m in that state, I don’t want this to happen, and then they don’t have to make those decisions.
Just think of it. A lot of times, because of the fact that our parents are living, or longer, which is great, the parents versus the husband. Nobody wants to put their family in that position. It’s just hard. It’s very, very sad.
Cindy Speaker: Or with a family and its five adult grown children that have all different ideas. I can see how that would be very difficult to work through.
Karen Noon: Absolutely.
Cindy Speaker: The same question for power of attorney. Here’s my question, at what point do you recommend it? Because as you’re talking, I’m thinking almost everybody should have these documents in place at any … At an age of significant maturity.
Karen Noon: I agree. I agree with you 100%. A lot of times, people will call in, they’re like 40, “I don’t know if I should have a power of attorney.” Oh, absolutely. Who do you want to have control over your money? Most people, if you’re 40 and you’re married, yes it’s going to be your husband. But to be honest with you, we have had people who say, “I really don’t want it to be my husband.” I’ll say, “Well, do you understand that your husband does have some rights?” “Yeah, but he’s okay. He’s not the best with dealing with things. I’d rather have my sister. I’d rather have my brother, and he’s okay with that.”
We’ve had people who … They don’t have their husband. They have a family member, like a sister or a brother, and that’s okay too. Again, it goes back to: Who do I want to have control over if something happens to me? So, as I said, I think that’s really important.
Cindy Speaker: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. Well as you said, let’s turn to wills and estates. To a certain degree, it’s … Let’s start off at I think the same issue, that for a will … It’s kind of like at any age of maturity in adulthood, it probably is warranted to have a will even at a young age. Is that correct?
Karen Noon: Absolutely. It’s never too early to have a will. It really is not, but I agree. It all comes down to: What do you want to do with your money? Unfortunately, we have had situations where if there’s an adoption along the way, and wills aren’t changed, family members … I would like to say that every family gets along, but that’s not reality.
Cindy Speaker: No, it’s not.
Karen Noon: And our intestate laws are very clear as to who gets money, and if you don’t want that person who would be normally … And intestate means that you die without a will, and those laws we have to follow. It’s just the way it is. So if you don’t want that person to get that money … And again, I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s something that you control. If you want someone else, or if you want a charity to get your money, you are entitled to that under Pennsylvania law. So, it is really important to do those type of situations … As I say, age of maturity and you go from there. Again, it’s the control, just like with the power of attorney and health care power of attorney, you’re controlling where your estate, where your money goes to.
Cindy Speaker: Yeah, that makes sense. Let me ask you this Karen, because there’s a lot of online platforms now where you can purchase legal documents. Why is it better to use an attorney? I assume it is, but why is it better? If someone uses these online forms, are they protected?
Karen Noon: Well first of all, if you’re using an online form, then there’s nobody helping you, there’s nobody answering your questions. There’s certain case law. We are a case law state and I want to make the distinction. We have the probate code in Pennsylvania, but there’s judge’s decisions that interpret the probate code. We are a common law state. So, the online form is not going to tell you, “Oh, but in Pennsylvania, it’s not only the statutes, it’s the judge’s interpretations.” It’s not going to tell you that.
We had a person come in … It was just one of those little things about how you write a will. It wasn’t written exactly the way we would write it, and it dealt with their inheritance taxes. The Attorney General’s office basically said, “Wait a second. Some of this money goes to a charity, and she’s not getting as much money as we would’ve liked because of the way the will was written.”
We didn’t write it. We just didn’t … She came in to us afterwards, and it was like … You know, this is a problem because of the way it’s written, and when someone looks at it down the road, and in this case, the woman was giving money to charity, the Attorney General’s office has to be notified. A lot of people don’t know that, but they do. They’ll look at it and say, “She doesn’t get this amount. She gets this amount.” Then it’s like, “Why?” And we have to explain it to her.
I just had a … Interesting that we were supposed to do this today, Cindy, because I had a phone call this morning from a woman who apparently did a power of attorney online, and the bank is not accepting it. The first thing I said to her is … And just so that you understand this, and I’m sure your viewers know this, but we offer free consultations, the initial phone call, the consultation. As part of that, I told her that I wanted to look at the document because I can’t answer her questions about it until I actually look at the document, which she’s going to be getting to me as part of her free consultation …
Cindy Speaker: That’s great.
Karen Noon: And see what we can do to help her because unfortunately it’s a situation with her husband. Again, no one’s telling you a lot of the different things about … Not only does Pennsylvania follow the statute, but you also have the case law. They don’t tell you that. They also might not tell you that in Pennsylvania, something has to be notarized. Sometimes in other states, they don’t have to be notarized. You’re not dealing with … You don’t even know where this online company is from. It could be from another country.
Cindy Speaker: Right, that’s a good point.
Karen Noon: It could be from another country. We have no idea where they’re at, and it can really get messy. It can get very, very messy, but I wanted to kind of throw that in there. We do offer, as you probably know, a free initial consultation with people. I know that people are very grateful when they call in and I’ll say, “Number one, we can’t help you,” but sometimes we refer to other people who can, or we’ll tell them … We try to help them as best we can on that with reference to your questions.
Cindy Speaker: Yeah. What it sounds like, Karen, is anybody that has any kind of assets, or whether it’s just like a hundred thousand or whatever, but if you have any kind of assets, I would think you would want the peace of mind to work with an attorney and be sure that nothing’s gonna fall through the cracks.
Karen Noon: Absolutely, and also just that you want … Again, you worked hard for that. You worked hard for that money, no matter how much it is, and you want to be able to give it to who you want to give it to. Again, it’s one of those things … Nobody likes to talk about death. Nobody likes to say, “This is going to happen to me,” but … As my husband always says, “None of us make it out of here alive.” It just doesn’t happen. So one of the things we do try to do is tell people, this is again another way … And I don’t mean to be repetitive, but it’s another way of making your family who’s behind, their lives easier. It really does … Both the power of attorney, the health care power of attorney, and the wills. It’s a theme that we …
When people come in and they’re apprehensive about doing something, we always tell them, “Isn’t it your goal to make … When you leave here, that your family is not struggling with a lot of different things, that they are making their lives a little bit easier.” They’re like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do.” That’s what these documents do.
Cindy Speaker: Yeah. I’d like you to explain two concepts that you talked about. You mentioned intestate and you mentioned probate. Can you tell us what exactly those terms mean?
Karen Noon: Sure. With reference to the word intestate, as I said, basically what that means is that a person dies without a will. In Pennsylvania, there is a statute that outlines if you’re married, how much money that person gets, whether you had children. It’s just right down the line. You have to follow it. It’s the way it is. Again, with wills, if you don’t want to give money to your son because he’s never done anything for you, a lot of people are very upset with the person, or you feel that you have supported him through so many different things and maybe your daughter or your other daughter … You know, you haven’t done as much for them throughout their life, and therefore you want your money to go to your daughters and not your son. It has to be through a will. Otherwise … If my husband is deceased, it’s gonna go to my children. It’s just the way it is, the way the law is set up. So that’s important with reference to knowing that.
And the word probate … And I want to kind of mention this, is that we have … What I would refer to as our secret weapon in our office … We have a woman, our State Paralegal, Sue Kester, who worked in our Register of Wills office for … I always tease her. I say she worked there for 150 years, but that’s not true, but she really worked there for a very long period of time, over 30 years.
One of the things that I truly believe is that she will see, and has seen more wills than I will ever see in my lifetime, because when you’re probating a will, you’re bringing it in to the Register of Wills office. That’s what the word probate means, you’re putting it in the Register of Wills office. There are certain things that have to be done. She is so good at this. As I said, I feel very fortunate to be here and to work with her in this … As I said, she’s been here for a long time. She’s been doing this work for a long time, and she’s also very good at if somebody has questions about even writing a will, she’ll say, “Just so that you understand, I had a case, and this was like this,” and of course that all comes from experience.
That all comes from experience. So I do want to give a shout out to Sue ’cause she’s great, but as I said, that’s what the word probate means. It’s basically you’re taking the will and filing it in the Register of Wills Office, and obviously we do that. It’s not … We don’t just do that in Schuylkill County, it’s not just here. We have done this in other counties as well, Luzerne, Lackawanna, Monroe, there’s a lot of different counties that we work in that are not far from Schuylkill County.
One of the things that Sue was very good at, and we all know this if you do estate work, which is as long as she’s been doing it, is that everybody has different rules. Lehigh County has different rules than Luzerne County. So it’s really important for attorneys to know those rules and making sure that we’re doing it properly in the county that the person passed away. So, she’s very good at contacting that county. What are the specific guidelines for that county? As I said, we don’t just deal with Schuylkill County. We deal with other counties as well, and I do want to mention that with reference to this particular program.