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The civil suit was filed Monday in Hennepin County District Court, alleging consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices. Calling Heritage a "living-trust mill," Swanson said it promised clients their legal documents would be prepared by an experienced estate-planning attorney.
But the clients ended up with boilerplate documents assembled by Dennis Lawrence, an Arizona man who's not licensed as a lawyer in Minnesota or Arizona. According to state law, only members of the Minnesota bar are permitted to prepare wills and trusts.
The trusts were full of problems and didn't suit individuals' situations, Swanson said. She said about 500 Minnesota households paid Heritage about $2,300 apiece -- or more than $1 million.
"They paid for a complicated trust, with an attorney, and that is not what they got," Swanson said. "(Heritage Partners') real goal is to get their foot in the door ... and then sell insurance products."
Gary and Penny Pietila of White Bear Lake responded to a Heritage flier and went to a local steakhouse for a free dinner and to find out about ways to pass on their assets after death. The speaker was Heritage's president and founder, insurance agent Anthony Friendshuh. What he had to say frightened Penny Pietila and, she said, "I fell for it, hook, line and sinker."
The couple ended up paying more than $2,000 for the trust document, but the health care and financial responsibilities they had laid out for their two daughters got fouled up, with all the weight put on one daughter's shoulders. They had a terrible time getting it straightened out, they said.
At the behest of the Heritage insurance agent, during 2012 and 2013, they also had moved much of their nest egg into annuities and were unhappy when the annual fee proved more costly than the interest the annuities earned.
"We were actually going south," Gary Pietila said.
During the dinners, Heritage Partners discussed estate planning, probate and trusts with senior citizens, Swanson said. Insurance agents set up appointments with attendees to try to convince them to buy legal services and investments.
The company was formed in 2010 and Friendshuh operates it from his Shoreview home, the attorney general said. The company represents Lawrence as an attorney, but in Arizona, he is certified only as a "legal document preparer," which isn't enough to give legal advice or prepare wills or trusts in Minnesota. Lawrence and his business, Legal-Ease, was successfully sued by the federal government in 2005 for unlawfully selling trusts to businesses who used them as tax breaks, the suit says.
Heritage Partners' lawyer, Kevin Riach of Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis, issued a statement saying Heritage works hard to keep its clients' best interests in mind and has been cooperating with the attorney general's investigation. It is still reviewing the complaint, the statement said.
Riach declined to answer questions about what other states, if any, Heritage does business in, whether Lawrence is licensed to practice in any state and whether Friendshuh has any specific education or training in financial counseling or estate law.
Reached in Arizona, Lawrence declined to comment on the lawsuit or whether he is a licensed to practice law.