Trust Accounts

Apr 19, 2022

What is a trust account and how exactly do they work? There are a number of important aspects to consider when it comes to trust accounts, as they can protect you and your assets in so many different ways.  Tracy and Susan break down trust accounts in this podcast – what they are, how to use them, and how they benefit you.


Tracy: On today’s episode, we are talking about trust accounts and how trustworthy they are. No, but really the who, what, when, where, why of trust accounts. 

Intro: Welcome to the Lady Lawyer League podcast. They are a league of lady lawyers in an all-female law firm in Omaha, Nebraska, called Hightower Reff Law. On this podcast, you’ll hear stories of what it’s like to be a lady lawyer and an entrepreneur. Now it’s time to talk about the law, share real-life stories about representing clients and discuss the current events of the week. It’s the Lady Lawyer League podcast with Susan Reff and Tracy Hightower-Henne. 

Tracy: Susan, what’s new with you today? 

Susan: Well, I’m having my mammogram right after we’re done with the episode today, I’m going to go get my annual check. 

Tracy: That sounds. 

Susan: Fun. 

Tracy: Steele claps. Oh, I think that was maybe like the noise that might happen at the mama slapping. Oh, no. 

Susan: Yes. 

Tracy: Squishy. 

Susan: Squishy. That’s a nice way to describe what happens during the mammogram. Yeah. Have you had one? 

Tracy: Yeah. 

Susan: Okay. So, you know, it’s it’s like so I was telling my husband, I was like, oh, I have my mammogram tomorrow. He goes, You sound a little excited. I go, Well, it’s always good to know you don’t have any problems, you know, like get the results and know it’s clean or clear or whatever they call it. 

Tracy: The part that excites you. 

Susan: Well, and I just like knowing I checked off all those adulting boxes. Yeah. 

Tracy: You know, sometimes when I have those adulting boxes to check off and you check off one, like the mammogram gets checked off today and you’re like, Yeah, maybe I don’t have any boxes to check for a while. And then you’re like, Monday comes around, you’re like, Fuck, there’s another box I got to check. 

Susan: I have to get my teeth cleaned and then I have to have a colonoscopy and then I have to have my thyroid checked and then my car needs oil changed, right? 

Tracy: Yeah. Adulting. I had to pay a bunch of property taxes. That’s a real adulting thing. 

Susan: And real taxes. I just talked to my … 

Tracy: Wait, do you have fake taxes? 

Susan: Well, I meant, like, not property or whatever. 

Tracy: Income taxes. 

Susan: Yeah. 

Tracy: Or whatever. Also, we’re not talking about taxes on today’s show because we have no idea what they are. 

Susan: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s almost tax time too. So lots of adulting happening. 

Tracy: Yeah, but we do pay taxes all the time when we buy something, you know, sales tax, right? 

Susan: Yes. 

Tracy: That’s all right. We’re done with taxes. 

Susan: I’m rolling my eyes. Yeah, we’re bringing the mood down so. 

Tracy: Well, I mean, are trust accounts exciting? 

Susan: I think we’re going to make, you’re talking too… 

Tracy: We’re going to make it more exciting than taxes. At least. 

Susan: Our trust account is very non-exciting because we follow all the rules. 

Tracy: Oh, your trust account. Yeah. Hightower Law. Yeah, yeah. I mean, rule followers is a good thing, but it’s true. It can be kind of boring. But this episode won’t be boring because we’re going to tell you some really good stories about safekeeping property, which is the actual rule of professional conduct that trust accounts fall into. 

Susan: What’s a rule of professional conduct? 

Tracy: Oh, my gosh. So the Supreme Court of Nebraska gives us a rule book. 

Susan: When you’re an attorney, you have to follow the rules. Yeah, all the time. All the rules. 

Tracy: And if you don’t, you get disbarred. 

Susan: Oh, my gosh. And they tell you that, like, from the minute you enter law school and they probably remind you two or three times a week, don’t do that. You’ll get disbarred. Yeah, at least at in my experience. 

Tracy: So we have federal rules or national rules under the ABA, which is the American Bar Association. And then every state has their sort of like, screw you, ABA, we’re going to make our own rules. And they’re pretty close and similar to the ABA rules. 

Susan: But the rules are like way more progressive, though. 

Tracy: Oh, they are. 

Susan: Yeah. So Nebraska has adopted some of them, but not all. And we usually adopt them like five years after the ABA has the dollar. 

Tracy: So do we have to follow? Both the ABA and the… 

Susan: ABA is not mandatory. 

Tracy: Okay, good to know. 

Susan: Yeah. 

Tracy: So we’re talking today only about the Nebraska rules of professional conduct. The less progressive ones. Yes. So I gave a presentation to a law school class this week at Creighton. 

Susan: Did you tell them, “Don’t do that, you’ll get disbarred. Don’t do that. You’ll get disbarred.” 

Tracy: Yeah. Yeah. That was basically my 90-minute presentation. But I was asked to come present on what it’s like being a family law attorney in a professional responsibility class. So I have this presentation that talks about rules of professional conduct, and then the professor before the class was like, I really want you to focus on what it’s like being a family law attorney. And I did. And I hope that I turned off the people from family law that won’t actually like it. Right? I was, like, raw and honest about what it’s like being a family law attorney. 

Susan: How many students were asleep? 

Tracy: No, none were asleep. 

Susan: How many were diligently listening? 

Tracy: There was a lot, there was really good questions. And in fact, one of the questions that I thought was really great was, um, you didn’t say that your husband’s an attorney. And so how do you deal with communication with your husband as a lawyer? And I said, well, oftentimes he asks me if I’m deposing him in conversations, and I usually say, “Yes, I am. I need you to answer the question. It’s either yes or no.” So there was good questions. 

Susan: Your husband knows what deposing means. 

Tracy: Yeah, he does. He says he feels like he’s in a deposition any time he and I communicate. 

Susan: Mine says interview. Is this a legal interview? 

Tracy: Oh, he needs to use the correct term. Deposition. 

Susan: I like to keep him in the dark. 

Tracy: But I think it’s funny. One of the things that I tell the class, this is the third time I presented to this class on professional responsibility. I tell them in law school, my lowest grade was in the professional responsibility class. 

Susan: Really? Yeah. 

Tracy: I don’t know why it was like two structured of rules or something. Mm hmm. 

Susan: Did you take it your first year or your second year? 

Tracy: I don’t remember. Probably my second year. 

Susan: So I took it my second year too. I don’t remember what my grade was, but I don’t think it was my lowest. I think that I would have remembered. But I remember. 

Tracy: By low, I mean a minus. Kidding. I won’t tell you what the grade was, but I think that we are pretty ethical and professionally responsible people in our office. So today we are talking only about the rule about safekeeping property, which is trust accounts. So what is a trust account? 

Susan: A trust account is a kind of bank account that attorneys have where we have to keep. 

Tracy: Safekeep. 

Susan: Safekeep. You should never put money in the bank if you don’t feel safe about it. 

Tracy: If it’s unsafe. 

Susan: Yes, this bank is unsafe. Yes, it’s the bank account where money goes from our clients that is considered unearned. 

Tracy: Why are you getting unearned money? 

Susan: Because. 

Tracy: Because that’s what we do. 

Susan: Yeah, because our clients pay us to engage our services before we’ve actually done work for them. So, like, at the very beginning of the case, we’re getting a chunk of money from the client to put us on retainer — I’m doing air quotes on retainer — and then as we work on the case, we bill against that. And so that money has to stay somewhere safe in the trust account. And then as we earn it, we transfer from the trust account into another account where we can actually use and spend the money. So the trust account, we don’t pay bills from the trust account, we don’t pay clients’ deposition fees, filing fees. We don’t pay the rent out of that account. It’s literally like a holding account. 

Tracy: Yeah. And so as lawyers, especially under the rules of professional conduct, we’re required to keep a pretty good accounting. Well, not pretty good. A very good accounting of our trust account to show what needs to be in there is unearned fees, what we can take out when we earn the money. And then oftentimes, too, when we talk about trust accounts, we’re using that account to deposit funds in there that may not even be fees. So, for example, in a family law case, we may have a house sold in the middle of a divorce and the proceeds may go into one of the attorneys’ trust accounts for safekeeping until it’s decided who’s going to get the proceeds and how that’s going to be split. So sometimes there’s even money in there that never will be lawyers’ money. 

Susan: It’s just a safe place to keep the money. 

Tracy: Yeah. And the other really interesting thing about, at least in Nebraska, our trust account is co-owned by the Nebraska Bar Association and they receive the interest. Yeah. What they do with the interest, I don’t know. No. I think it goes towards filing fees for. 

Susan: Indigent people maybe. 

Tracy: Correct. 

Susan: Or something like I’m sure there’s an accounting in the public somewhere of how much money they get off attorney trust accounts. Yes, fees or interest. But at any time anyone can, from the Bar Association. Or, well, it’s probably the, there’s probably a committee through the counsel of discipline. 

Tracy: Yes. 

Susan: That can probably pull up your trust account and look at it. And, you know, I think a red flag would be if money comes in and then the very next day, all of that money would go out.  

Tracy: Right.  

Susan: Or even the same day. Or if it looked like you were spending from your account, like if it was like $2.43 at Scooter’s. 

Tracy: Do not buy Scooters from your. 

Susan: And by the way, you can’t buy anything for $2.43 at Scooter’s, maybe a bottle of water. 

Tracy: Maybe a bottle of water, but probably not. Maybe like a mini cinnamon roll. Yeah, I do. Probably not there. 

Susan: But if it looks like you’re spending from your trust account, I think that would be a huge red flag. 

Tracy: Yes. So trust accounts are that part of the rule of safekeeping property. That’s pretty simple and how we keep money. So when our clients retain us, their original retainer goes into our trust account. We do an accounting at the end of the month and then earned fees are removed from there. But the other part of the rule, which is actually way more exciting, is property in the sense of personal property stuff. Yeah, sometimes we have to hold stuff for our clients. 

Susan: What kind of cool stuff have you ever been asked to hold for your client or not? So cool stuff. 

Tracy: Even oftentimes it’s jewelry, right? So we may be in the middle of a divorce case and people don’t want to see each other, but they’re off maybe picking up stuff from their spouse’s attorney’s office. Yeah, which also is interesting to me too. Like do I want to go to my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s attorney’s office to pick up stuff? 

Susan: If you’re an adult, you would be okay with it. 

Tracy: So you’re checking that adult box? 

Susan: Yes. Yeah. 

Tracy: So it has been a lot of jewelry that I think we’ve held. One time there was a safe; I was told that there was gold in it. 

Susan: Was it a big safe? I never saw the safe. 

Tracy: It was a little safe. 

Susan: Like a box. 

Tracy: Yeah. Like the ones you would see in a hotel. 

Susan: Did it have like the spinny, or was it like a digital code? 

Tracy: I don’t remember. 

Susan: Did you try to open it? 

Tracy: No. 

Susan: Oh, shoot. 

Tracy: So in that moment. 

Susan: I look at the jewelry. Sure, yeah. Like, if it’s a box, you’re like, maybe it’s empty. Oh, nope. There is a ring in there. 

Tracy: Well, we have to be safekeeping about it, right? We need to know what’s in there. Yeah, but the safe. I remember thinking at the time the safe was dropped off. I have no clue what’s inside the safe. And also when personal property is dropped off at our office, I feel this level of some anxiety over liability. 

Susan: Yeah, of course. Like, yes. 

Tracy: This person needs to pick this up right away. What if our office gets broken into and all of that? But one time there was a gun that needed to be transported between the parties and I really felt uncomfortable about that. And it got dropped off and picked up immediately. Oh, and I remember there was like the bright yellow lock on it, trigger lock or some. 

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