Phil Koenig: Helping Families and Businesses in the Quad Cities

by Keith D. Picher

ROCK ISLAND — Philip Koenig grew up in suburban Chicago. Although the idea of practicing estates and trust law in the Quad Cities at The Koenig Law Firm was hardly in the forefront of his mind, Koenig’s home life sowed the seeds of his lengthy legal career.

His inspiration to practice law came from his mother. She thought her son had the mettle to become an aggressive courtroom lawyer, based on his penchant for arguing.

Koenig also began to appreciate the vital role of an estate and trust lawyer after his father died while Koenig was a child. He watched how the lawyer tied up loose ends for the family and remained a trusted adviser. Although Koenig considered becoming an English teacher during his collegiate years, memories of the family’s attorney inspired him to apply to law school.

Looking back in time and geography on those days, Koenig says the law he practices in the Quad Cities is not so different from what families need in the western suburbs. “Outside of Chicago, there’s a place called Illinois,” he says. “These people have problems no different from anywhere else. The only significant difference is that many of my clients have farming interests.”

Most residents in the Quad Cities area are middle-class people. The metropolitan area is home to large employers such as John Deere and Alcoa.

“Life here is remarkably similar to Chicago and the suburbs, but just not as big,” he says.

“We have all kinds of urban pressures here and a lot of successful people whose varied legal needs must be met.”

About 60 percent of Koenig’s practice involves wills, trusts and estate planning. Included in that segment is a niche practice of litigating estate matters. The other 40 percent of his work involves various issues such as bankruptcies, contract law, property law, landlord and tenant law, divorce, and tax matters.

Koenig routinely has both large and small engagements in many areas of law. Some examples include:

  • recovering $1.3 million in estate taxes from non-probate beneficiaries of an estate
  • contesting a will that gave everything to one of 17 children to the exclusion of the decedent’s wife and his other children; also, recovering a residence given away under the father’s power of attorney to the daughter of the child who was to receive everything
  • filing a Miller Act claim for a local contractor owed nearly $300,000 by an out-of-state concern
  • implementing special needs trusts for disabled persons to prevent future denial of government benefits
  • recovering damages for a homeowner to enable the homeowner to purchase a new furnace after a contractor installed one that was too small to heat the home
  • real property matters, including boundary disputes, easement disputes and tax deed matters
  • handling Illinois and federal appeals on a variety of legal issues
  • decedent’s estate administration matters
  • estate planning matters, including tax planning, drafting revocable trusts, and related documents

Setting up an Illinois Law Practice

After graduating from Southern Illinois University in 1972, Koenig attended Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles from which he earned his law degree in 1975.

Koenig lacked Illinois connections. He met one day with a Wheaton attorney to network. The lawyer gave him the name of John R. MacKay, who then was president of the Illinois State Bar Association, and he referred Koenig to the ISBA bar placement service.

After Koenig enrolled in that service, a lawyer from Geneseo contacted him. He joined the law practice and worked at the firm for 13 years. He would later join one of the larger Rock Island law firms, where he was a partner for 10 years. In 1998, Koenig went into solo practice.

Koenig remembers the legal mentors who showed him the way early in his career, including Robert H. White, the highly regarded Geneseo estate tax planner who represented a considerable number of farmers. Koenig’s understanding of the law grew through his time with White and his experiences with other lawyers in the state bar associations. White encouraged Koenig to get involved in section council work in trusts and estates and in real estate.

“Phil is an excellent technician, and Bob White was a wonderful technician,” says Reynolds M. “Rip” Everett of Galva-based Barash & Everett. Everett also considers White a mentor. “I admired that quality in both of them.”

“[I] see the big picture and practicality, so I always try to associate myself with people who have strengths where I have weaknesses,” Everett says. “Phil is an excellent technician with tremendous intellectual curiosity who can see nuances and intricacies that I miss. He is dogged in achieving perfection in whatever he does.”

Many small business owners and farmers rely on Koenig’s counsel. Among his clients was the owner of a machine shop that made parts for Caterpillar. Lawyers refer many clients to him.

On at least one occasion, though, Koenig was fortunate to land a client by referral from his mother. A fellow bridge player mentioned that her husband and his family had an estate problem in western Illinois. The case involved a son using his father’s money to buy a farm that the son decided to hold in his name alone. After the client contacted Koenig in Rock Island, he took the matter to a jury trial. The parties reached a $500,000 settlement following two weeks of testimony.

Litigation and Appellate Victories

In addition to estate and trust litigation, Koenig has handled noteworthy cases in the Third District of Illinois and before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“He likes to focus on types of case law that many lawyers shy away from, but he digs into,” says Robert D. Lambert, a business lawyer with Stanley, Lande & Hunter in Davenport, Iowa. The two have consulted with each other for about 15 years.

Lambert and Koenig each have some clients on the other side of the Mississippi, but they also refer work to each other. When they frequently discuss legal strategies, Lambert usually provides insights on Iowa law, and Koenig concentrates on the Illinois approach. “He’s a good lawyer and a gentleman,” Lambert adds. “It’s good to have that combination.”

Some of Koenig’s unpublished cases have been intriguing for unexpected reasons. In Piano v. Piano, a Third District case from 1999, the court affirmed for his client the absolute right of partition by a co-tenant of real estate. Maxims of equity do not limit the right to a partition. While researching the chain of title during the course of his representation, Koenig learned that his father’s cousin once owned the property.

In Metrobank v. Gottman, a Third District case from 2000, Koenig successfully argued that the testimony of a lawyer who drafted a trust should not have been admitted to help interpret it. Koenig claimed that parol evidence that related to the trust’s meaning was inadmissible. The appellate court’s reversal kept the trial court from introducing testimony that the lawyer had made a mistake.

Koenig made significant law for his client in another Third District case in 2005, In re Estate of Muppavarapu. The family of a local physician had tried to limit the amount of money Koenig’s client, a young widow, would get through a testamentary trust.

Two trustees in the case, in their roles as trustees, lost a considerable amount of funds investing in technology stocks. They decided to lend themselves money at passbook interest rates from the trust to cover margin calls, but they refused to pay for the widow’s health insurance even though the trust’s purpose was to fund medical and educational needs. The trial court said the trustees had not engaged in bad faith behavior, but the appellate court reversed that decision, and Koenig helped to make new law on self dealing.

In Koenig’s most memorable federal case, Melton v. Melton, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in 2003 the application of federal preemption in a dispute involving employer-provided life insurance benefits. Koenig represented the third ex-wife of a John Deere employee. That man committed suicide six months after the two divorced. Koenig’s client was the named beneficiary of her former husband’s term life insurance policy, but a minor daughter from the previous marriage argued the policy proceeds were hers based upon language in a judgment for dissolution of marriage.

Koenig’s client couldn’t attend the oral argument, but Koenig told her she could listen to it a day later once a recording became public.

Not fully understanding the details of ERISA law, she asked Koenig why the insurance policy would be treated differently from the other property specifically excluded in her own divorce agreement. Koenig summarized the concept of federal preemption using frank lay terms: “The Constitution kicks a__.”

In the end, Koenig’s client won. To this day, Koenig says, his friend Malcolm L. Morris of The John Marshall Law School re-tells the story when teaching estates and trusts.

In another case, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually adopted Koenig’s successful Seventh Circuit position: Employer plan papers—not the terms of divorce judgments—always dictate the beneficiary of plan benefits.

Solving the Problems People Face

“Cases like these have given me a reason for being,” says Koenig. “Solving problems for clients is really quite satisfying for me.

“Getting the IRS off someone’s case or prevailing in litigation or designing an estate plan dealing with the peculiarities of someone’s life is satisfying, and it has provided me with a good living.”

His career allows Koenig and his wife, Karen, time to enjoy domestic and international travel. Koenig also enjoys hosting guests at summer barbecues, cycling, and reading books either on a Kindle or using old-fashioned paper. Koenig’s three grandsons, ages 6 to 11, are the apples of his eye.

Koenig’s concern over the problems that clients face carries over to the rest of his life. He is a member of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline and actively takes part in the Rotary Club. In 2002, Koenig was fortunate to travel to the club’s international convention in Barcelona.

“As a small-town lawyer, it was quite something to sit 10 feet away from Mikhail Gorbachev,” he remembers.

He sits on the board of directors of the Boys & Girls Club of the Mississippi Valley. Koenig has lent his fundraising efforts and financial, moral and legal support to the group. The club’s substantial projects include building a new youth center in Moline. The center encourages teens to stay off the streets while helping them with schoolwork and providing a place for athletics, dancing, pool, and ping pong. The teen center includes a branch of a local credit union that will employ local youths and teach them basic business manners.

That outreach focuses heavily on the area’s Hispanic community. Many of the families have limited opportunities, Koenig says, due to their limited financial resources and lack of familiarity with available resources.

As Koenig first learned from his family’s estates and trust lawyer, legal professionals can make a difference in young people’s careers. ■

This article originally appeared in Leading Lawyers Magazine—Consumer Edition for 2011 and has been reproduced with permission. © 2011 Law Bulletin Publishing Co.