Marisa Nelson is a wills, trust, and probate lawyer licensed to practice in California. When she became a lawyer in 2011, she watched families argue over who would manage and inherit the money and who would take care of the kids and grandparents. She saw so much heartache and expense that could have been avoided with good, quality estate planning. So she started her practice, Law Office of Marisa C. Nelson, focusing only on estate planning.
The top values at Marisa’s firm are anti-racism, LGBTQ+ rights, sustainability, equal access to legal services, and taking into account pets as important members of the family.
In this episode, Marisa Nelson talks to Tivi Jones about access to legal services for everyone, regardless of their background, legal protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized communities, the importance of real estate planning, and incorporating your strengths into your work.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ESTATE PLANNING
Many people have a misconception that estate planning is just for the rich. However, Marisa emphasizes that everyone, regardless of their background or financial situation, should think about estate planning. “If you have one house to pass on to your kids, it’s really important to preserve that if it’s your goal,” Marisa says.
She says that many people still think that estate planning is not for them, and rightfully so, given the historical context of lawyers only helping certain groups of people and ignoring others based on their income, their racial or ethnic backgrounds, or gender.
“There's too much of the legal industry, including wills and trust, that is still taking that approach to so many demographics. Legal rights are important, the law is important, and we don't have to be so stuffy about it and old-fashioned about it or feeling that wills and trust are not for you,” Marissa says.
Marisa tries to change this stigma by providing equal access to legal services, listening to her clients, gaining their trust, and then representing their legal interests. “My whole firm and staff help people feel like this is for you. What do you need for your current assets and your current situation?”
The other side of the coin is that people have a fear of death and have something holding them back from starting the process of estate planning. “There's nothing I can do about when or wherever someone passes, but I can help ensure if and when that happens your family has an easier time and it’s as smooth as possible for them,” she says.
She says that people reach out to her for a couple of reasons: someone has already experienced the passing of their loved one and wants to avoid the heartbreak and confusion that the estate or trust planning causes, or if they have kids, they tend to be more motivated.
Marisa says in some cases, you may be able to plan your estate planning by yourself. There are a few DIY options on the Web, but Marisa found them problematic, so she created her own DIY templates on her website.
“I’ve seen a lot of glaring holes in some of these other DIY options. For example, someone filled out that they wanted to leave everything to their spouse and equally to their kids, but the kids weren’t named in what they’ve set up. And that was the whole goal,” she explains.
Instead of having one set of DYI, Marisa created a few templates: for single parents, married parents, and married without kids. Each of the templates includes some amount of pet planning as well. You can download the template that’s right for you and most things will already be filled out, minimizing the effort you have to put in. The forms also come with many examples.
“If some of those things are not true for you in those DYI templates, then you really need to consider a customized plan and talk to a lawyer,” Marisa says.
LGBTQ+ LEGAL PROTECTIONS
One of the groups that might face challenges when it comes to estate planning is LGBTQ+ couples. “Even though the United States has made a lot of progress in the last 10 years around equality of legal rights for same-sex couples, there’s still a long way to go,” Marisa says.
She found that many estate planning lawyers in California don’t know what the legal differences are for same-sex couples. Marisa is part of a nationwide group of attorneys and they have forums to ask each other questions.
“A lawyer will pop in a forum once in a while with a very basic question for same-sex couples, married or not, and nobody answers that question. And it’s a very active group so that really says a lot,” Marissa says.
Marisa has been passionate about LGBTQ+ legal rights for as long as she can remember. In law school, she wrote a paper on abolishing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), right before it was repealed.
She says members of the LGBTQ+ community or people from other marginalized communities, might be afraid to find a new service provided without knowing whether they will welcome them in their office.
“Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, sometimes I have heard about estate planning lawyers who will NOT work with same-sex couples or other groups. So I realized, I need to make this clear on my website that I welcome you in my office and I will treat you with respect, and I do know how to take care of your legal needs,” Marissa says.
Marissa is continuing to find new ways to help same-sex couples, get the word out, and invest more in areas that she’s passionate about.
While Marisa is working tirelessly to grow her business, she says she’s had two biggest wins in her career.
The first one was joining business coach, intellectual property attorney, and Hello Seven founder Rachel Rodger’s WSABM business group, where she met our host Tivi Jones. In the group, she was surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and talked to them about challenges they experience while running their businesses, normalizing Marisa’s experience and making her feel like she wasn’t a failure.
When Marisa started her business 10 years ago, she was just out of law school. She wanted to work for someone else before starting her own firm. But the job market was not good at the time, and she decided to start her own business right away, learning not only how to be a lawyer but a business owner at the same time. A few years later, she went to work for another law firm, then went back on her own, and then in 2017 worked for yet another law firm that she loved. But then she realized that she wasn’t meant to be an employee and wanted to do things differently in her own practice.
“Once I realized I wasn’t meant to be an employee, I was really able to commit and own that I do want to run my own practice. That opened up the possibility of joining this business group,” Marisa says.
The second win in her career was realizing how important visibility is. The game-changer for her was reading the book The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. There were four different categories in the book that describe things that hold people back and prevent them from really shining and succeeding.
“The category that stood out for me the most was visibility because I wanted to grow my business, but at the same time, I also wanted to hide. And that makes it hard to let people know that hey, I offer this great service,” Marisa says.
She has been getting a lot more comfortable in the last couple of years talking about and promoting her business. “If you told me even a year ago, that I’d be excited to do this video chat with you, Tivi, I wouldn’t believe it,” she says. “So that’s been a big challenge, but I am adjusting. I’m definitely not comfortable yet doing Instagram lives or other things that I’m supposed to be doing, but one step at a time.”
Tivi admits that even as someone who runs a marketing and communications agency, Hey Awesome Girl, and who has worked in the field for almost 20 years, she still struggles with putting herself out there.
“I’m very good behind the camera as a producer but being in front of the camera is still tough for me. I force myself to do it. Give yourself a little bit of grace,” Tivi says.
PLEASURE EASE AND ABUNDANCE
Marisa says that people have this mindset that we need to work hard now and rest later. “But no, we need time for ourselves now. We should build it into our schedule and that will increase everything that we are doing,” she says.
She has gotten into the habit of asking herself, “how can I let this be easy?” Sometimes just stopping herself to ask that questions and being curious presents answers quickly.
Marisa found that taking the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment test was extremely valuable. “Taking the Strengths Finder evaluation has been really helpful in spotting ways that I can make things easier and add more pleasure. Realizing that someone else might find some things easier than I do has been very helpful,” she says.
She gives an example of how Clifton Strengths Finder has worked to her advantage. It found that Marisa’s weakness was executing. Last year, she hired an associate attorney who was doing great work and gave her really thorough feedback via email. Marisa noticed that those emails started piling up and would be left unanswered. Until then, Marisa thought that email was her preferred method of communication, but she realized that doing brief Zoom meetings was an easier way for her to receive and respond to feedback.
“Now, the associate attorney gets responses more quickly and I don’t feel like there’s much more execution I need to do,” she says.
The lesson here is to be open to change and adjust work processes as needed with the team.
ADVICE FOR YOUNGER SELF
When it comes to giving advice to her younger self, Marisa says this: “Hire early.”
“At some point, you realize that your business is not growing anymore unless you hire more people. I wish I had realized that a lot sooner because I definitely would have grown more quickly, been happier sooner, and offered better services,” she says.
The hiring process is scary and employers get stuck in this mindset that they can’t afford to hire an additional team member. It’s an expensive bet. However, both Marisa and Tivi advise exploring all your options when it comes to hiring.
“I’d say for anyone watching or listening who’s like ‘well can't afford to hire anyone– maybe you can't have an employee but maybe you can have a contractor,” Tivi says. “If you're not at a point where you can bring on a contractor, look at software, look at automation. There are lots of free ways out there you can make your life a lot easier. Whether it's reminders or other apps, there are so many ways you can implement before hiring someone,” Tivi says.
Marisa says maybe you need someone only for 5 hours a week to help with a specific task and someone would be happy to do it.
“‘Be strategic about it. Ask yourself, ‘What do I need help with next that will bring in more money?’ And that's how you will afford the software, the person, or the employee,” Marisa says.
I hope that you have enjoyed this episode as much as I have!
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