JAMES L. CUNNINGHAM, JR.
CEO, Partner, Certified Specialist – Estate, Trust, and Probate Law CunninghamLegal
You might say that two themes define Jim Cunningham’s life: the law and California.
As a second-generation California attorney now in his third decade of practice, Jim Cunningham and the firm he founded have helped thousands of families and individuals plan their estates—and preserve their legacies. Certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Specialization as a Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law, Jim holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California at Santa Cruz and a Juris Doctor from Whittier College of Law.
A good attorney will de-escalate and resolve issues so they don’t drive families apart.
His many professional memberships include the California State Bar, Ventura County Bar Association, El Dorado County Bar Association, Capitol City Trial Lawyers Association, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), Vistage International, WealthCounsel, and the California Advocates for Nursing Care Reform (CANHR).
He’s also a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). A third-generation pilot, he says he’s the only one of the pilots in his family never to have crashed a plane–certainly an important distinction.
Jim is also the best-selling author of Savvy Estate Planning, a book that takes the complex topics of living trusts, wills, probate, estate planning, and estate administration and puts them into simple, easy-to-understand language anyone can understand. As Jim says, “It may not be ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,’ but it is surprisingly fun to read—and will definitely give you a strong, straightforward foundation in estate law.”
A committed philanthropist, Jim is also deeply involved in pro-bono work. “We help medical professionals, first responders, retail clerks, and culinary workers with free online estate planning, including wills, powers of attorney for property and powers of attorney for healthcare.”
Estate Planning: Far More than Writing Up Wills
Although it’s a highly specialized discipline, the field of estate law casts a pretty wide net, requiring attorneys with a vast expanse of skills. In addition to estates, Jim also specializes in elder law, special needs planning, and Medi-Cal/VA benefits. “Estate Planning often goes beyond even these issues to business planning, asset protection, and much more.” Jim frequently helps family-owned businesses, from retail to ranchers, plan for their future. As a licensed broker, Jim personally handles complex private real estate transactions between siblings, landlords to tenants, and the like.
Often, Jim and the other attorneys at CunninghamLegal advise and assist families facing long-term care issues. “For example, if you find out that Grandma needs to go to a nursing home and it’s going to cost you $7,500 a month, we help families qualify for public assistance benefits while still preserving their assets.”
As a certified specialist in estate planning, Jim reports he is one of a surprisingly small number of attorneys who specialize in this field: “Out of about 170,000 attorneys, only about 700 specialize in estate planning, trust, and probate law in California.” For those of you doing the math, that’s just .41% of attorneys in the state. Lots of attorneys do estates as a sideline, but it really does require that kind of focused expertise to do it right.
So, what makes estate planning such a challenging field? Along with knowledge and experience, it requires patience, compassion, and dealing with people when they are at their most vulnerable.
Indeed, estate planning can sometimes involve more family drama than a reality show. Rivalries, irresponsible family members, and even family secrets can all play a role in making an already tough situation even tougher. A good attorney will de-escalate and resolve these issues so they don’t drive families apart.
As Jim notes, “Sometimes people come into my office with shoe boxes and folders full of documents with no clue where to start. Sometimes they’re at a low point emotionally. Maybe a loved one is sick or they’re going through a divorce or an estranged sibling is holding things up. It’s my job to not only to sort out their legal and monetary issues, but to protect them from predators, irresponsible family members, and sometimes, even themselves.”
Helping Clients Face Their Fears
For the average person, dealing with estate planning can feel like staring at the “CHECK ENGINE” light on a car. No one wants to face the mechanic, but everyone knows if they don’t, they run the risk of getting into serious trouble later on. The problem, as Jim explains, is that the victim of your procrastination may be someone other than yourself: “You really don’t know what you don’t know, and some of your uninformed decisions can do a lot of unintended damage to your children and their relationships with one another.”
For the average person, dealing with estate planning can feel like staring at the “CHECK ENGINE” light on a car. No one wants to face the mechanic, but everyone knows if they don’t, they run the risk of getting into serious trouble later on.
“Look,” continues Jim, “I understand that dealing with the loss of a loved one, or even dealing with an incapacitated loved one, is one of the hardest things each of us will ever face in life. The overarching goal is to protect your assets while you are living and make sure that your wishes are carried out after you die. We want to make sure your loved ones have an easier process and your assets are maximized.”
Of the many challenges Jim helps his clients face, he says he has a clear favorite: “Many clients seek out our firm to help them with an aging parent. I think helping adult children with aging parents is the most gratifying aspect of this area of law. It’s deeply satisfying to help people sort through the legal and financial issues of long-term care. And in my own way, I am able to facilitate the peaceful transfer of legacies to the next generation.”
Given his fierce commitment to family, it’s not surprising that Jim would go into a field that protects them.
A life-long Californian, Jim was born in San Diego in the historic year of 1969. When the family moved north to Ventura County, Jim became “a true California boy, spending every possible minute outside, riding horses with mom and hanging ten on surfboards with dad.”
For college, Jim chose UC Santa Cruz (go, Slugs!), but spent much of his time immersed in travel abroad programs in France and Spain. In spite of “having a blast at school,” he managed to become trilingual, adding French and Spanish to his list of spoken languages. Shortly after graduation, Jim met Lori, the love of his life (To quote him, “ooh, la, la!”), and in 1994, Jim was sworn into the bar. As he recalls, times have really changed since then: “Practicing law in the 1990s was a lot different. I had a fax machine, a beeper, and a landline. Talk about old school!”
Soon the first Cunningham Law office opened—with eleven more eventually springing up across both Northern and Southern California. Children also followed. Just as Jim’s star was starting to rise, Jim and Lori had a son, Nick, followed not long after by the adoption of twin girls from Russia, Katia and Masha. The headquarters of CunninghamLegal eventually moved to Auburn, California, and the Cunninghams moved to nearby Sacramento, where they now live full time. Jim and Lori report that they especially enjoy bicycling out to all the great local Sacramento restaurants.
The beeper is gone, but Jim’s life-long commitment and dedication to California and the law continue—now, of course, with a lot of time on video calls. When asked to explain what the Cunningham brand stands for, he cites neither revenue nor awards, not even its long list of accomplishments. Instead he offers a philosophy that anyone who knows him would expect: “That we care in a world where there isn’t enough caring.”