A graduate of Cornell Law School, Kristen M. Lewis practiced tax law in New York City for two years before moving to Atlanta where she found her passion for estate and trust law. While working at King & Spalding, Lewis’ mentor Henry Bowden summoned her into his office one day with an assignment. A longtime trusts and estates client had just had a baby who suffered significant brain damage during delivery and was now severely disabled. The mother was looking for a special needs trust. “Go find out what that is,” said Bowden.
Bowden’s assignment ended up dictating the course of Lewis’ career, which has now spanned 33 years. Now an expert in special needs planning at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, Lewis explains that the objective of a special needs trust “is to maximize funding sources for these children with disabilities to preserve their eligibility for various government programs that provide for people who have disabilities. Then we supplement those government programs with a family’s private resources.”
The challenge for families to find financial support is more difficult than it was when Lewis first began preparing special needs trusts. “In the early days, probably 80 percent of the special needs trusts that I worked on were funded with a verdict or a settlement from the person who was responsible for the child’s disability,” says Lewis. “Thirty years later, most of the special needs trusts that I work on are for children or other folks who have disabilities that are nobody’s fault. Autism is the classic example; there’s nobody to sue. There’s no deep pocket of a defendant to help fund what the child needs in the future, and for those families, it is even more essential to do special needs trusts planning that will maximize both government and private sources of funding for the child’s needs.”
Not only does Lewis prepare trusts for the families of those with disabilities, she also provides trusts for beloved pets. “Most of the clients that I do pet trusts for don’t have human children. They consider their pets to be their children,” states Lewis. “Georgia law was recently amended to specifically authorize trusts for pets. Prior to that, we were doing trusts for pets that were sort of under the radar, not statutorily authorized.”
For 25 years, Lewis has been fusing her interests with her specialty in trusts and estates by volunteering with her husband every Saturday night at Canine Assistants in Milton, an organization that raises service dogs for people with disabilities. Along with being listed with Best Lawyers® since 2013 for trusts and estates, Lewis has also been elected as a fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and is a member of the Special Needs Alliance.