One of My Toughest Cases
Dividing an Estate
L. Milton Cancienne Jr. Cancienne Law Firm Houma
Steven Hronek Photographs
48 years in practice
B.S. Louisiana State University – 1960
J.D. Louisiana State University Law School – 1964
Native of Houma
L. Milton Cancienne Jr. is a man of many hats. Not only is he a will and estate attorney, but also, he says, he must at times play the role of a social worker, to counsel clients; a teacher, to explain the law to his clients; an accountant, to make tax and other computations; and a detective, to find “lost” heirs.
“I thought I would like handling estates since it would involve accounting,” says Cancienne, who received both a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a law degree from Louisiana State University.
A week after being released from active duty from the U.S. Air Force, Cancienne took and passed the bar exam. He began his successful career as an associate attorney in Colfax.
“The job in Colfax was my own self-imposed internship,” Cancienne recalls. “I knew the law, but I did not know how to go to court and run a law office.”
He moved on to become a sole practitioner in Houma in 1965. ”If we did not have the Cancienne Law Firm sign on our front door, by observing me at work, you would probably think I was an accountant rather than an attorney,” he jokes.
It was 1985 when Cancienne took on one of his most challenging cases that put his skills as a will and estate attorney to the test. The case involved the succession of a widow with no descendants. The widow’s last will and testament left her minerals and royalties to four charities, along with one small monetary gift. After accounting for those five, her will left one-half of the remainder of her estate to her nephews and the descendants of her deceased nephews. The other one-half was left to the nieces and nephews of her late husband and the descendants of his deceased nieces and nephews. Her husband’s side of the family included 10 heirs; her side of the family included 122 heirs.
Dealing with this many heirs made computations by hand impossible, so Cancienne had to learn and master the use of spreadsheets. And to top it off, the whereabouts of four of the 132 heirs were unknown. All the paperwork for the inheritance tax return was due nine months after the death of the decedent; Cancienne had to work fast.
Two of the “lost” heirs were sisters and were last known to live in Madagorda County, Texas. Cancienne ran notices in a couple of local newspapers in that area asking for them to contact him.
“In my experience, women are more difficult to locate than men because women marry and change their last names,” he says.
Luckily, the sisters contacted him within a couple of days after publishing the ads. The two remaining “lost” heirs, a brother and sister, proved to be the most difficult to find, Cancienne says. Relatives said they were last known to live in the Shreveport and Bossier City area of Louisiana. Like before, Cancienne ran notices in local newspapers. He heard nothing for a month. Time was ticking.
With the deadline to file the paperwork drawing near, Cancienne ran the notices again as a last-ditch effort. This time the woman contacted him at the urging of her friends, and she gave Cancienne contact information for her brother.
With all the heirs accounted for, it was time to tackle spreadsheets. Cancienne says at the time he knew no one in Houma who could teach him how to use spreadsheets until he met a newcomer at a neighborhood party who agreed to teach him the basics. With the help of his two secretaries, Marlene Chiasson and Jeanice St. Germaine, who still work with him today, Cancienne was able to file the inheritance tax return with time to spare. Each heir received anywhere from $120 to $45,000, depending on the variations in degree of relationship to the decedent.
Since then, Cancienne has worked on numerous cases, and in 1997 he became a certified specialist in estate planning and administration after the Louisiana Bar Association offered board certification for the first time. With every day that passes, Cancienne says that it is the people he works with who keep him motivated.