Spotlight On…. Steward & Sheridan, PLC with James Steward

elder law, U.P. wellness publication Steward& Sheridan PLC
James Steward, Steward& Sheridan, PLC

What does Steward & Sheridan, PLC offer, and what is your role?

Our practice area relates to estate planning as a major starting point in many cases, and, whether or not we’ve done that for the particular client, we also handle Medicaid application work related to long-term nursing home stays. So maybe that client or other person who contacts us ends up in a nursing home, and it looks like they’ll have to stay longer than their Social Security benefits provide for, and they should consider the possibility of Medicaid benefits, especially if married. Rules are very different for couples. Medicaid nursing home stay expenses are quite high, $11,000/month. Most over 60 need to consider possibly needing longer-stay nursing home care at some point. This can be taken into account with the estate planning process, and provide some protection for the person’s assets. It’s important to have these discussions early so decisions can be made, or at least evaluated, as there are quite a few different options that should be addressed.

We also offer probate and trust administration—dealing with the assets, paying the bills, and distributing to the beneficiaries, which sometimes can be simple, and other times not.

Clients meet with me or Angela Hentkowski. We’re the only actively practicing certified NELF (National Elder Law Foundation) attorneys located in MI’s Upper Peninsula. We’ve both been certified for quite a while. There’s a level of expertise and knowledge that goes into that rather than someone who just occasionally goes into these areas. Our knowledge base addresses elder law, and we keep up with it on a very regular basis, as things change quite often.

We have many clients with disabled beneficiaries—their children or grandchildren. In many cases, a disabled person will need to rely on government programs to provide services, particularly medical services, so in most cases it’s best to establish a special type of trust that will be there for their lifetime but can be used for the beneficiary. Advanced planning is needed to put this into place.

How did you get into this line of work?

The firm I was in forty years ago needed somebody to do the probate and trust work. I was interested even in law school, so I started doing that work way back then. That depth of experience is very helpful in today’s world.

In 2010, a substitute statute replaced Michigan’s 1978 probate law, making it more comprehensive, and it has been modified since. I worked on the 2010 MI trust code substantially, and a bunch of other statutes and statutory amendments. Over the years after that, I was directly involved in the probate planning section.

I was also directly involved with membership in committees related to the elder law and disability rights section of Michigan’s state bar. Angela and I have been very active because we feel it’s important to keep up on what’s happening and be part of the process so when changes are being discussed, we have input into those considerations.

Medicaid is largely driven by federal stature that the state is supposed to follow but in many cases does not, resulting in litigation. Recently, Angela and I were directly involved in litigation on Michigan’s Department of Health & Human Services applying a federal statute in a way we felt was wrong. This went through the Court of Appeals. Some situations become way more involved than you want them to be. It’s necessary to have knowledge of statutes that apply and their wording, especially in Michigan, because sometimes Michigan feels it does not have to follow federal requirements.

What stands out about your firm?

We have a depth of knowledge and explain stuff. When we meet with a client the first time, we review their total assets because that’s driving elements. They must be taken into account regarding options we’re recommending or pointing out, as well as the family situation, including whether or not there’s a disabled child or grandchild, and whether or not the client is a veteran of the U.S. military. That can open up additional benefits the client may be eligible for in the future. As people get older, those disabilities can change, so that’s something to consider.

We always start with the client’s concerns, their family situation, and what they’d like to accomplish regarding the distribution of their assets. We spend quite a bit of time discussing factors going into making it all work, I think more so than most attorneys, so clients get a better sense of the overall complexity, and why an estate plan is needed. So there’s an ongoing discussion. It’s important for clients to revisit their estate plan every several years so it still fits their situation. People live longer now than their parents and grandparents did. The chances of disability are much greater than when they didn’t live as long. The chance of outliving one or more of their children is greater. Quite often people don’t think of this. That’s something we worry about all the time because we keep seeing it.

You don’t have to be wealthy to need estate planning.

In the U.P. in particular, your family may have a camp or other real estate that’s been in the family a very long time. Many will a property or camp to all of their children. That’s often asking for long-term problems. Everybody’s got to get along and do what they’re supposed to do. Forever. And if the kids ever have any credit issues, or divorce, now the property’s at risk.

I developed a special type of trust over many years specifically to deal with that. It’s something others don’t have. We go over its pros and cons with the client to see if it fits with their present and long–term goals.

We also helped with the correction of a Michigan Health & Human Services interpretation of federal Medicaid law in the Hegadorn case. This was a big deal that took many years to get done. It ended up being a unanimous decision by the Michigan Supreme Court, which is somewhat remarkable.

What do you find most challenging about your job?

One challenge is keeping up with all the changes. Another is dealing with the state of Michigan not following Federal rules for Medicaid. Also, sometimes a client believes they can find out this info on the internet and do their own plan. The thing is you don’t know what you don’t know. You can find some info online that may or may not be correct, and you don’t know how it all fits together. That’s our job—figuring out how it all fits together and making that work.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Helping people, and helping them prepare for the future. In some cases, helping them deal with a medical crisis, nursing home practice, and especially issues affecting the spouse, and otherwise trying to protect for the benefit of their ultimate beneficiaries.

Most people don’t want to make donations to the government that they don’t plan for. And if they don’t plan, the risk of this is much greater, just as with your income tax return. We’re always working with what the law provides and what’s permitted to minimize this.

Excerpted with permission from the Spring 2021 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2021, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.

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