“Maybellene, Why Can’t You Be True?”

To paraphrase country music singer Allan Jackson, my first love was an “older woman.” I was sixteen and she was forty-two. Despite the age difference, she was the prettiest I had ever seen. Although my parents were skeptical at first, they became very supportive of our relationship. My friends had their doubts at first as well, but they grew to truly adore her. She was born in Michigan in 1953. She is teal/blue and white and originally had a Powerglide transmission. I’m speaking of course about “Maybellene,” my 1953 Chevy Bel Air, named after the Chuck Berry song.

Recently, my mechanic suggested that I purchase taller and narrower wheels and tires to better accommodate the custom frame. I was excited to outfit Maybellene with “saddle shoes” (white wall tires), but I realized that beyond starting the car and steering the wheel, I know next to nothing about cars. My mechanic made it sound easy, “Just go taller and narrower.” The mechanic said that he was “not a tire guy,” but that the tire shop of my choice should be able to help me.

I visited my tire shop and was informed that in order to purchase white wall tires, I should go directly through a tire distributor on the east coast. The tire shop gave me dimensions on the height and width of the wheels and tires, but advised that when it comes to hot rods, they defer to the mechanic. The tire shop agreed to install my new tires and wheels after I ordered them through the distributor.

I called the tire distributor to sort through its catalog and finally settled on specific wheels and tires. Again, the focus was solely on the height and width. Before placing my order, I reviewed the potential purchase one more time with my mechanic and the tire shop. Both stated, “That sounds right.” Finally, not completely sure of what I was doing, I placed the order.

As feared, something indeed went wrong. Even though everybody only focused on the height and width of the wheels and tires, nobody mentioned to me the existence of a third measurement: “inset measurement,” that is, how far in or out the wheels sit. As it turned out, the wheels sat too far out, hitting the fenders, and rendering Maybellene non-operational. To make matters worse, because the wheels were mounted to the car, they were considered “used” and the tire distributor refused to accept a return. As far as finding a solution, it only got worse from there.

My mechanic suggested the solution was to order new wheels with different inset measurements. My tire shop dealer told me that getting new custom wheels would be too expensive and suggested instead to have a body shop roll the fender to create more space between the tires and the fender. I therefore visited a body shop. The body shop (predictably) advised me that rolling the fender will not work and suggested that I might need a smaller front clip.

In a few short hours, I went from having a drivable classic car that was going to be fitted with new and improved wheels and tires to a non-operational disaster with three different and contradicting opinions as to the best solution! Thankfully my mechanic offered to solve the problem for me, which ended up with my purchase of five new custom wheels with the proper inset measurement. Between the original wheels, the wheels I purchased from the east coast, and the custom wheels, at one point I had 15 wheels (including the spares) for one car!

This anecdote offers lessons that can be applied to estate planning.

1. Communication between expert and client is essential. Just as I do not expect my clients to know about conduit provisions, generation skipping tax, spendthrift clauses, and the rule against perpetuities, I should not have been expected to know or to inquire about inset measurement. The best attorneys are those who have a keen appreciation of what their clients should not be expected to know and effectively communicate that information in an easy-to-understand manner.

2. Communication among advisors is also important. Often, a client will have an attorney, an accountant, a financial advisor, and in some cases a realtor and a mortgage broker. If the parties are not on the same page, advice is bound to get muddled and the client suffers. Advisors must acknowledge that the client cannot be “stuck in the middle” and should put their egos aside and reach out to their colleagues to make sure that the plan is comprehensive from all perspectives.

3. Client care and service is necessary. When I had three different advisors giving me three different and contradicting solutions, I felt lost and frustrated. Thankfully my mechanic offered to lift the burden off of my shoulders by finding a solution himself. There is truly a benefit to having an expert who will accept the responsibility to address the client’s needs.