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Do Something Meaningful: A Conversation With Kate N. Kishfy

Kate Kishfy joined Hinckley Allen as an associate in 2013. Her practice is focused in the area of trusts and estates, including estate planning, estate and trust administration, income tax planning and charitable giving. “Trusts & Estates is a really unique practice within a firm like Hinckley Allen,” Kate says. “We are a full-service commercial law firm, but for the most part, I’m working with individuals and families. I’m working on personal stuff; I know my clients. I know their deepest fears; I know what they’re really proud of in life. I love that I get to work with so many individuals and families.” In particular, Kate is experienced in drafting estate plans which are designed to accomplish wealth transfer objectives, while also minimizing tax burdens. Kate is also experienced in probate and trust administration, including representing fiduciaries in the settlement of estates.

HA: Tell us about your career path and how you came to Trusts & Estate law.

KK: I was very fortunate to be a summer associate at Hinckley Allen back in 2011, after my second year of law school. It was an incredible experience that allowed me to work with a number of different practice groups, including our Corporate group, our Real Estate group, and our litigators. After I finished law school and passed the Bar Exam, I did a clerkship for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court here in Rhode Island for one year and was very lucky to be offered a position with Hinckley Allen as a first-year associate right after that. In terms of selecting Trusts & Estates, in law school I focused heavily on tax law; one of the great things, in my opinion, about Trusts & Estates work is that it is very tax heavy, at least in the context of estate tax planning and estate and trust administration. So although I never really envisioned going into a Trusts & Estates practice when I was in school, my background in tax law really did help me seamlessly transition into the practice.

I think Trusts & Estates is a really unique practice within a firm like Hinckley Allen. Yes, we are a full service commercial law firm, but for the most part, I’m working with individuals and families. I’m working on personal stuff; I know my clients. I know their deepest fears, I know what they’re really proud of in life. I love that I get to work with so many individuals and families. I also do a lot in the non-profit space, and that has allowed me to marry my love of charitable planning work with my professional experience in Trusts & Estates: It’s incredible to work with individuals who are trying to achieve their legacies through charitable giving and do something meaningful for their families and communities.

HA: When do you recommend people start thinking about trusts and estates? 

KK: The most common time that people start thinking about estate planning is when they have their first child. On the other hand, I work with a lot of people whose kids are young adults and they’re doing their estate planning for the first time because they couldn’t decide on who they were going to nominate as guardians. As an estate planner, I can confidently say that there is space for estate planning for everyone, even if you think you don’t have a lot of assets, even if you don’t think that you have a complicated family situation, even if you haven’t come into a lot of money and you don’t need to do tax planning—there is still room for a conversation about estate planning. This isn’t just about planning for what happens when you die, it’s also about who you want making medical decisions for you if you’re incapacitated; it’s about who you want stepping in if you’re unable to handle your own finances. It’s about being thoughtful and intentional about those types of choices.

HA: Speaking of trusts and the matter of handling finances, we’re in a very interesting time in pop culture where everyone seems to be talking about conservatorships as part of the #FreeBritney movement. Can you explain conservatorships and how they’re meant to be implemented?

KK: To start, the word “conservatorship” is specific to particular states. Every state has its own set of laws around them. In Rhode Island, for example, we don’t have conservatorships. We have guardianships and we can have people who are guardians of the person or estate. A guardian of the person is responsible only for day-to-day living factors, like where a person lives, what sort of medical treatment they’re being provided, the medications they’re taking, that kind of stuff. The guardian of the estate is responsible for financial and asset management. Under Rhode Island law, the objective is to implement the least restrictive option. It is a thoughtful process that’s intended to create checks and balances. That said, there is no automatic expiration date on guardianships, and one criticism about them in cases like Britney Spears is: Does it make sense that the burden is on the person under guardianship to try to overturn this semi-permanent to permanent legal designation?

The guardian cases I have worked on fall into two buckets: One category is elderly individuals who have developed dementia or have otherwise lost their mental capacity. Often those people didn’t do estate planning and now assets need to be accessed to pay bills but no one has the legal authority to do so. So they go to court and a guardian is appointed. The other scenario where I see guardianships come up is for children with severe special needs. When they turn 18, they may become eligible to receive certain government benefits. Often the parents or siblings will seek guardianship so that when that individual turns 18, someone is there to open a bank account, make dentist appointments, and handle their daily affairs.

HA: Can you share a particularly interesting or meaningful trust you’ve worked on? 

KK: I recently had the opportunity to work with a client on a very special charitable contribution: When my client was a teenager, his brother was killed in a terrorist attack. Obviously this incident profoundly and deeply affected his life—in fact, he has spent much of his professional career paying homage to his brother. I helped him set up a fellowship fund in his brother’s honor. It was a fairly complex charitable asset transfer: We were using appreciated assets that were in a trust, and transferring them in a way that would achieve good tax outcomes for everybody involved. The institution awarding the fellowship grants has already started accepting applications. I am so excited to see what the first round of grants looks like.

HA: Switching gears—in honor of Women’s History Month, can you tell us about some of your female role models?

KK: I’m perennially impressed with Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. I think she is phenomenal. She is clearly the most powerful woman in Europe—and among the most powerful women in the world—and she has a fascinating background: Although Merkel is from west Germany, she grew up in east Germany behind the Iron Curtain, and got involved in politics very shortly after the Iron Curtain fell. She rose to this position of highly effective leadership during a time when Germany and when Europe was in a period of great hardship.

My other female role model is General Leia Organa, a.k.a Princess Leia! She embodies what it means to be committed to a particular set of values and to really live those values.

HA: Can you share your thoughts on the importance of having more female lawyers in leadership positions, and what firms can do to empower them?

KK: Better representation at law firms needs to be a priority across the board. COVID proved what a crazy burden it is for people to juggle full-time, demanding professional careers and all the responsibilities of home life (whether that’s caring for children, parents, or simply finding the time to pick up your dry cleaning). I do think this period of remote working has shown just how much falls on women.