Welcome to Chicago North Shore Moms weekly Meet a Mom series where we spotlight one local mama, what they’re up to both personally and professionally. This week’s Meet a Mom feature is lovely, strong, radiant and a fierce go-getter Lake Forest mom of three littles, Mary Gifford of Gifford Law, LLC, a solo Estate Planning Law Firm. Mary embodies the spirit of community and empowerment as CNSMoms’ very own Meet a Mom sponsor, and we can’t thank her enough for helping us lift up our local North Shore mamas.
In this poignant interview, Mary describes the emotional anguish her family experienced when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia at age three in 2018. “We are forever grateful to the Lurie Children’s Hospital Cancer and Blood Disorders Team,” says Mary as her family revels in the joy of each day with her daughter in remission! This battle helped propel her decision to leave a corporate job and build a business from scratch on her own. Enjoy Mary’s on point advice about the small things moms can do to help themselves through each day, answers pressing questions about why everyone should have an estate plan and offers advice to moms about starting their own business from scratch. Without further ado we are exceedingly thrilled to introduce you to Mary!
Hi Mary! Where are you from originally? What city do you live in now?
Hi! My name is Mary Gifford. I grew up in Libertyville, lived in Chicago for years, and now live in Lake Forest.
You’re a mama! How many kiddos do you have and how old are they?
I’m a mom to three girls. I have eight-year-old twin daughters and a six-year-old daughter. My poor husband basically lives in a sorority house.
Haha! True. What’s your favorite thing about being a mom of three girls?
My absolute favorite thing about being a mom is watching their personalities come to life a little more every day. When I first had each of my children, I remember looking at these blank slates of a human, thinking “Who are you???”. Now, I love observing what interests to which they are naturally and intrinsically drawn, catching a moment where their senses of humor emerge, watching them develop relationships with each other and the world, listening to their opinions on life, and taking in their ever-changing personal styles (using the term ‘style’ very loosely here).
The past year has been such a whirlwind. What has been the hardest part about this pandemic for you personally? Any sanity tips you’d like to share?
This past year has been crazy and difficult. I recommend making a conscious effort to show yourself kindness and grace during this time. Parents working outside the home were required to do something that had never been done before: both work AND act as caretaker AND help educate young children at home. Don’t feel guilty about using whatever tools that you have at your disposal to survive.
I used to be so strict with my kids about screen time, but during this pandemic I’ve had to relax my rigid iPad rules. If it occupies the kids while my husband and I get some work done, and we’re all healthy and generally happy, then I consider it a win. So, I say, give yourself some grace, be flexible, and take it one day at a time.
Here’s my more practical tip: Prep for the next morning rush the night before, then get up one hour before the rest of the family. Claim that one hour of solitude for yourself. I use that hour differently depending on how I feel. Sometimes I get in a workout. Sometimes I sit in our screened in porch (when the weather is nice), with a cup of coffee, a cozy blanket, a candle, and listen to music or a podcast. Sometimes I lay on the couch with a sheet mask and scroll tiktok for an hour.
But, during a time where the togetherness of quarantine is almost stifling, an hour to yourself in the morning is like a “mini vacation.” The serenity inevitably ends and reality kicks in when one of my kids wakes up and comes storming down the stairs yelling about a variety of unforeseen grievances including, but not limited to: lost hair brushes/hair ties/unicorn shirt, uncharged ipads, dissatisfaction at current house temperature, dismay at planned breakfast, inquiries about how many days left until the weekend, and urgent requests for updates as to when I’m going to do ‘the very important thing’ that I said I was going to do two weeks ago….
Sigh, and so the day begins. But at least I got a little time to myself.
Girlfriend, that is 100% spot on! What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you…
On my honeymoon, my husband and I spent a night in a treehouse on a South African wild game reserve, miles from other people. It was amazing to wake up predawn with the animals.
Any local Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, Highwood favorite takeout restaurants?
Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen in Highwood for Indian food. We get it every Sunday night!
While not takeout, but more take and bake – Poeta’s Italian Food Market. Get one of their brick chickens and their fresh bread for a super easy weeknight meal. Their fresh frozen pasta dishes, eggplant/chicken/veal parmesan, lasagna, and ravioli rival the best Italian restaurants and make eating at home easy and delicious.
You’re a mompreneur! Please introduce your Estate Planning firm, Gifford Law, LLC.
I started Gifford Law, LLC last year (2020) in the midst of the pandemic. Gifford Law is an estate planning firm that is driven by expertise, transparency, and human connection. We use plain English to explain complex estate planning concepts and guide our clients through the available options to achieve peace of mind for our clients and their loved ones.
How it began…. Covid brought a lot of estate planning issues into sharp focus for families. Issues such as what will happen to my children if I die? If I am incapacitated, what will happen to my finances? Who will decide if I go on a respirator if I can’t decide? All of the issues that are easy to ignore or put off when times are good, but during the pandemic, they became impossible to ignore. I wanted to help families find some sense of security and control during a time when nothing felt sure. I decided to take my knowledge of sophisticated estate planning techniques and apply them to families like my own, allowing families to secure their future, should the unthinkable happen.
What was your career prior to starting your estate planning firm? what was your line of work?
Prior to starting my estate planning firm I worked for a CPA firm and an investment advisory firm serving high net income clients.
One of the reasons you started your own practice is quite personal. Can you please share with us more about that?
One of the motivations for starting my firm was the opportunity to help families to prepare for and deal with the unexpected. Our family was dealt the unexpected in 2018 when my youngest daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 3. It was the last thing I ever anticipated happening to my sweet baby girl. Her diagnosis fundamentally changed our family and taught us to live in the present, remain grateful for the boring ordinary routine days, focus on what really matters, and to give back to other families dealing with a child with cancer. My daughter finished her treatment last summer and is now in remission and doing well! We are forever grateful to the Lurie Children’s Hospital Cancer and Blood Disorders Team. To all the Cancer Mommas, I know how hard it is and how long the road is. My heart goes out to you and I’m happy to talk to anyone going through it.
And was it scary to leave a corporate office and go out on your own?
To be honest, it wasn’t scary to start a practice on my own, because I knew I wasn’t completely alone and was in control of my future. Throughout my career, I built a great network of relationships that have been invaluable to my practice. I knew that if I started my own firm, I could choose the people I surrounded myself with. I found intelligent, experienced, inspiring, and generous people to mentor me, surrounded myself with supportive and like-minded peers with whom I can share experiences and collaborate, chose the clients that I wanted to serve, and found a way to practice law that aligns with my personal morals and beliefs.
That is not to say that having a solo practice isn’t hard. Because it is. But everything is hard. Working for a firm or company where you get a regular paycheck every two weeks, but have no control, autonomy, and are unfulfilled and unsatisfied is also hard. You have to choose your hard.
What is the most rewarding thing about your career?
The most rewarding thing about my career is being able to help families gain a little bit of certainty in an uncertain world. I love the relief on my clients’ faces once they have completed their estate plan. I can almost see the weight being lifted from their shoulders.
Do you have any mentors or influencers who have helped along the way?
My brother, who manages his own law practice and taught me so much; my mom, who managed to work full time and made parenting look easy; my dad who ran his own dental practice; and my husband who regularly makes the impossible possible.
And of course…. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama, all the working moms in our community, and Beyonce and Rihanna, for bringing the hype to this house daily.
What advice can you give other mamas out there who are looking to start a new business in the current climate?
More than 2.3 million women have dropped out of the labor force since February 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists have called this recession a “she-cession.” Not only is this bad for women, but bad for our country’s economy as a whole.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how obviously dependent mothers’ careers are on the schools as de facto childcare. But the U.S. government has never been all that eager to establish programs that would make working mothers’ lives more manageable. So, I think one by one, we as mothers, have to find our own paths and our own creative solutions when it comes to remaining in the workforce while raising children. If your solution is starting your own business on your terms, I think now is a great time to do so. The internet and social media are the great equalizers. Never in our history have information and resources been so available and accessible to everyone. Never before have we had such an opportunity to create our own brand, networks, connections, and ability to speak directly to our clients, customers, networks. If you want to start a new business, put together a plan and start chipping away at it. If possible, start by doing it on the side. Just start, learn from your mistakes, adjust accordingly, repeat.
Fabulous advice, thank you! What are the 2 most common questions that people reach out to ask you? Please also provide those answers.
“Why is it so important to have an estate plan once you have a family?”
This is where things get heavy. And for good reason. What would happen to your children if you died tomorrow?
Say you have a parent or other relative who you would like to take care of your kids. Without an estate plan, that relative would need to obtain guardianship over your children through a court proceeding before they would have legal authority to manage their care and provide for their well-being. What your assets? Your property would need to be distributed through probate court. If your children are minors, they will not be able to access those assets until they reach age 18. In the meantime, a guardian would manage that property for your children. Taking care of your children and taking care of your stuff all requires time, money, and court proceedings. There are also many ways things could go wrong. Are there any relatives you do NOT want to take care of your kids? Is there anyone you do NOT want to oversee your assets? Do you want to leave certain funds for your child’s education? Do you want to ensure your child is able to stay in the same city or school district after your death? Are there any other special instructions you want to leave behind? Without an estate plan, all these questions are left up to chance.
Considering your own death can be a very heavy thought, especially once a child has come into your life. However, it’s just another one of the many hard parenting things you’ve already done and will continue to do to ensure that your child is provided for and taken care of, no matter what happens. And I’d still argue that creating an estate plan is a lot easier than 3 AM feedings or waiting up for your teen driver to arrive home at night.
“I’m not rich, do I really need an estate plan?”
Absolutely. The goal of an estate plan is to provide security for you and your family. When you think of it that way, wealth has nothing to do with it at all.
An estate plan isn’t for you, but for those you love and leave behind. When you die, someone has to settle your estate. Even for a small checking account and a car, someone has to distribute the account and change car’s title. Without an estate plan, someone will have to go to probate court, prove a relationship to the deceased and be assigned by a judge to serve as executor.
You will also want to plan for your health. No one wants to spend time thinking about what would happen if you became unable to direct your own medical care because of an illness, an accident, or advanced age. However, if you don’t do at least a little bit of planning—writing down your wishes about the kinds of treatment you do or don’t want to receive and naming someone you trust to oversee your care—then these important matters could wind up in the hands of estranged family members, doctors, or sometimes even judges, who may know very little about what you would prefer. While you are having a medical crisis, your loved ones will undoubtedly be undergoing their own emotional crisis in their concern for you. You can make it easier on them by having your healthcare wishes documented, giving your loved ones the comfort of knowing they are executing your plan exactly the way you want.
Undergrad college/major: Northern Illinois University/Accountancy
Favorite candy: Jelly Belly jelly beans
Strangest thing in your purse right now: Random old keys that I am too afraid to toss. I know the second I throw them away the matching lock will present itself. I live my life like I’m in a full time Escape Room.
Last book you read: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson
Your binge shows: Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, Ozark, The Wire
We are truly honored to have you as CNSMoms Meet a Mom sponsor! Why did you choose to become the CNSM Meet a Mom sponsor?
I chose to become the CNSM Meet a Mom sponsor because it was the perfect opportunity to both serve the local community by sharing the amazing resources we have right here in our own backyard and to help support local moms and their businesses. I truly believe that the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” still remains true. Our villages may look different, and may reside somewhere in the sea of binary code that is the internet, but I believe when women come together and support and promote each other, the entire community wins. CNSM is an amazing resource and a great community of moms and I feel lucky to be a part of it. Not to mention, it is run by some pretty cool chicks.
Aww shucks, thank you! What’s next for Gifford Law, LLC? Any new trends or new laws that we should know about?
Everyone is speculating about what will happen to the estate tax under Biden’s administration. Biden has proposed reducing lifetime exemption from $11.7 million to $3.5 million, increasing estate tax rate to 45%, and eliminating step-up in basis to fair market value on death. Word on the estate planning street is that things will not likely change with estate taxes until 2022 because the government is focused on the pandemic, economic recovery, unemployment.
However, the laws are always changing. Don’t wait to get your estate plan done. You don’t know what the future holds in the way of new tax laws or for you personally. Plan your estate now, while you are healthy and can do so.
How can we connect with you for more information?
You can find my website here: Gifford-Law.com