Estate planning lawyer Rod Cunich has helped hundreds of YourLifeChoices members with a multitude of queries about wills and end-of-life planning – despite a busy practice and an interest in a travel company.
He has been a consulting principal at Keypoint Law in Sydney and has had more than 35 years of experience in consumer and business law. He specialises in wealth protection, business succession and personal estate planning and in 2016, his book, Understanding Wills and Estate Planning, was published.
He is 63, married with two adult children. We decided it was time to find out more.
Can you describe the type of work you do?
It’s estate planning but that covers a broad spectrum of work and involves a lot of commercial issues. People who come to me tend to have complex affairs. It’s not going to be a matter of who they’re going to leave their wealth to. Often they will have businesses and want to extract equity out of that business. They may have trusts set up for investment purposes and these may need restructuring so those assets can continue to be controlled by family after the owner passes without there being disputes over who gets what.
I need to stay up to date with a lot of developments and changes to the law across a wide range of issues, but that’s what makes my job exciting.
For 20-odd years I was actively involved in litigation. I’ve seen first-hand what happens when people don’t protect their assets. That helps me when I sit down with someone to see how best to arrange their affairs.
What parts of your work do you find particularly satisfying?
The area that I get the biggest buzz out of would be when people come in with a problem that may have been plaguing them, sometimes for decades, perhaps a problem within the family. It may involve a child and they have been trying to work out for themselves how they go about providing for that child when they’re not around.
Often, they don’t know the answer because they aren’t aware of all the options. They simply don’t know what’s possible.
They sit down with me and often in half an hour, I can show them a complete solution. I get a real buzz out of that. They go away with a real weight taken off their shoulders.
The other area I get a buzz out of is helping people organise their affairs when they have disabled children. It may not be until the child is in his or her 20s that the parents get enough ‘head-space’ to think about their own future.
They will often come in with a whole shopping list of issues. I can give them some certainty, security and comfort; perhaps even show them how one day they can slow down, how they can structure things if the child survives them and so on. I find that very satisfying.
You’re 63. Are you still working full-time?
I’m in the process of dropping back to being a consultant. I’ve found an experienced solicitor and I will work with her to take over my clients, but much of my time will be in identifying issues, problem solving and strategic planning, and identifying issues for clients.
You are so generous with your time in answering questions from YourLifeChoices members. How do you make the time?
I make the time on weekends when I’m relaxed and can sit down with a cup of coffee. I need to consider all the things that can apply to a question.
Often I’m not provided much detail. On one hand, I want to give useful and practical guidance to a person, but on the other I can’t be too specific because of the lack of facts. I like to try to make my answers useful to other readers who might have a comparable problem. I also need to be very careful that while offering useful assistance, I’m not leading people into believing that what I’m saying is a complete answer as ‘the devil is always in the details’. I aim to help people understand their issues better and take the necessary steps to find personalised solutions, rather than provide incomplete solutions or take the view that it’s too hard to provide them with any help.
You are asked a lot of curly questions about wills and executors and powers of attorney. What are the most common?
Some of the questions that are recurring are: ‘Can I leave someone out of my will?’ or ‘I have been left out of the will, what can I do about it?’
There are also a lot of queries about older wills. For example: ‘So and so died in 2012, can I still make a claim?’ Most claims can only be made within 12 months of a person’s death, so people need to be proactive in going to a lawyer and finding out their rights. They may have rights, but they may have lost them due to the passing of time.
By what age should everyone have a will?
Everyone should have a will from their 20s. A lot of people will say, ‘But I don’t have anything.’ However, even younger people may have life insurance through their superannuation. They may not even know about it – that the insurance proceeds will go into their estate or to a dependant if they die.
Another motivator is when people have their first child. They may not be concerned about assets but about who will be the child’s guardian if both parents die.
Basically, anyone who has any assets and/or children should have a will.
Should we all have an advance care directive?
This involves setting out end-of-life decisions – what sort of care you want to receive and what you don’t want to receive. Legislation differs widely from state to state.
Maintaining dignity would be the driving force in what people decide, also avoiding as much pain as possible. Children may have very different views about what their dying parent would want. Having an advance care directive makes it easier for the children who don’t have to second-guess what the parent would want. They also avoid ‘blame’ for making decisions that aren’t approved of by family members if they are implementing their parents’ express wishes.
What is your view on voluntary assisted dying?
At this point in time, the jury is out. I’m very familiar with the legislation in Victoria and the arguments for and against. The Victorian legislation goes a long way to putting in place a series of safety measures, but I’ve heard well-reasoned counter arguments from people in the palliative care sector – the very people who work with dying patients. The issues are not easy and the answers are not clear-cut. I want to see how the legislation in Victoria operates.
In Switzerland, where they have had this legislation for a very long time, very few people actually used it to end their lives. All the concerns expressed by interested parties before the law was implemented have proved to be unfounded. Let’s hope we have the same experience here.
You do a considerable amount of pro bono work. Can you tell us a little about that?
I do quite a bit for people with disabled children and for very elderly people who don’t have much but what they do have is precious to them, and they want to ensure it will benefit the right people.
But the area where I do most of my pro bono work is in teaching people about estate planning, lecturing other lawyers, students and members of the public.
It’s an area where there is a lot of ignorance. My aim is to help lift people’s knowledge about what is possible, what the dangers are, how an estate plan can help avoid untold damage within a family if certain issues aren’t formally addressed.
I like to avoid hand grenades being lobbed from the coffin into the crowd as it’s being lowered. Some ill-prepared wills have that very impact.
If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be?
A photographer. That goes hand in hand with travel. I’m not sure which came first, but travel gives me untold opportunity to see wonderful places.
Do you travel for pleasure?
I very rarely have time off to travel just for myself. I part-own a family business that runs conferences for medical practitioners. We take groups of GPs to exotic places. While they’re enjoying those places, we run conferences that fulfill their mandatory education requirements – it combines their education with their holiday and saves them having to find two blocks of time away from their practice each year. It’s often hard work, but always fun.
What are your top destinations?
Antarctica, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia, Spain and east Africa – Tanzania, Kenya. All marvellous countries. The list goes on and on.
Where have you been this year?
Antarctica, Atacama Desert, Patagonia, Chile and Argentina, Malta, Sicily and mainland Italy, southern France and also Berlin to inspect venues for possible future conferences. Most recently, I met my wife – who’s a GP – in Dubai and we headed off to Tehran to lead a group of doctors on a tour around Iran. It’s a fantastic destination. Politicians have a lot to answer for!
What does retirement look like to you?
No less busy than full-time work, but I’m keen to spend a lot more time in our travel business, though I will continue to act as a consultant for people taking over my practice.