Do Not Write on the Evidence

How many times has a client come in with a great piece of evidence only to find it is ruined because they have indelibly added their testimony to the face of it in blue or black ink. It is as if the intense need to control events blots out any kind of judgment they might have had, or restraint to action until they can get some legal advice.

A letter might have proved their point, but who can say who is the author of all the rest of the commentary?document

I can hear the objection already, the document is not authentic because the author is undetermined.

Or in the case of a bank statement which was certainly produced by the bank, but who wrote “Uncle Charlie told me I was supposed to get this!!!” on the face of it?

 

 

I have vivid memories of a judge examining the offered exhibit then angrily declaring “Some one has written all over it!” knowing that someone was seated at counsel table next to me.

 

Objection Sustained.mean judge

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Dying Declarations Are For Slayers Only

After the funeral people come to see me about probating the Last Will and Testament the family member left behind. The interview sometimes begins like this:
“Dad wanted me to have the farm. He told me so on his death-bed. He said, ‘I want you to have the farm’.”
family farm

I ask for the will and can find no reference to this bequest. Instead the client and all her siblings are listed share and share alike which means they all get an equal portion ownership.

“I am afraid you have a hearsay problem”, I tell the shocked client.

eager person
This “dying declaration” always seems to benefit the client immensely.

There is some room for dying declarations to be admitted in court.

First, the person has to understand they are about to die when the statement is made.

Second, it is only admissible to prove the client is guilty of murder of the decedent.

Third, if proven, the client is not going to inherit in any case because of the rule that says slayers do not inherit. axe murderer

Fourth, I refer this person out to a firm that handles criminal law.

A good example of what might be admitted against the client was John Lennon’s exclamation “I’m Shot!” if offered in the prosecution of Mark Chapman. john lennon

Faced with this and other evidence, Chapman plead guilty to 2nd Degree Murder and is still in prison.

So friends and neighbors let’s go with what is on paper and not a dying declaration. If admitted at all, it might mean you are going to jail.

The Power of Myth at Death

Neptune
What ends up happening with a mans estate is often just a question of how strongly a myth about “what ought to be” is held by those who survive him, rather than what it says in black and white in the will.

This goes far beyond the “what Dad really wanted” comment I hear, literally, every day in my office and am powerless to use as evidence.

images rolling rock

Instead I refer to the mythical powers people assume they have upon the death of another. Conduct they would never dream of adopting when the man was alive suddenly becomes the standard for these new demi-gods.

centaur

First it is the personal property that disappears. The thought process must be “He doesn’t need this any more” or the more morally justified “I better take this for safekeeping”.

What disappears? Guns of course, jewelry ( often a ring ), watches and other valuables but even step stools and kitchen knives. I am not making this up. The Ring

Next comes the money. Often people claim to have been told by the decedent the life insurance is “for” someone else than is named in the policy. This may be true but it is a myth that the benefactor will do the right thing every time without a trust actually being drafted.
Frodo

Worse is the personal representative ( or executor ) who, upon gaining access to the funds of the departed become a Gollum-like creature, cursed with the evil ring that bends the mind to the dark side and a bright side; a schizophrenic.
gollum

On the surface Gollum is a fiduciary taking great care of the estate. But alone, the personal representative assumes special powers which, after making certain incantations, can rationalize use of the funds of the estate for personal purposes while the rest of the heirs sleep through the process.
wizard
Often myth infects those waiting for the money. Memories of how the personal representative behaved on any given occasion in the near or distant past which might imply a likely failure to act with strict adherence to the terms of the will and duties imposed by law somehow become fact, and extrapolated into current, on going theft of the estate.

Gollum 5

But this is not without some basis, even if it is not theft that occurs. For example other myth frequently encountered is that a “good person” who is named as personal representative is not necessarily up to the task of managing not only the assets of the estate timely, but also managing the other myths the heirs named in the will have preloaded into their minds which activate as the news of the death spreads.
Frodo 2

Objectivity is often the first casualty in probate. If you happened to be named personal representative of an estate in a will, take a deep breath and consider the evidence before you, not the bias of your mind. Also consider declining the appointment. Stay in the Shire, away from the ring.

The Over-Planned Estate

Once is enough.

Suddenly this office is awash in probates where the decedent decided to help out a bit more after leaving our office.

We had carefully examined the assets, laid out a disposition for the property in the will, and bid farewell to the client.

Next stop for the client: The bank to execute payable on death clauses to make sure the people had money when the client died to settle his or her affairs.

Isnt that what the will is for? Last will

The trouble is that second step means the estate is gutted of those funds and the bequests in the will never get funded. Absent the beneficiary taking a moral course back to our office to unwind this step, the money quite possibly never finds its way back to the estate to make sure the right people get the bequest, or even “people have money to settle my affairs”.

As a matter of law this money which is payable on death belongs to the person the client named after he left our office, and the beneficiary doesn’t have to “do the right thing”. remember you are not here in that event to make it right.

This event might fall into the category of ” I just want it to be simple ” but too much effort means it is not. Instead it gets complex. Saying it once in the right place is enough.

Juror Number 12 Never Returned, No She Never Returned

I read an article in my hometown newspaper today about juror misconduct leading to the guilty getting away with crime.

In one case the jury had deliberated for 2 hours and decided to take a break. Juror #12 never returned, the entire trial was over with no verdict, a mistrial. Now the state has to decide whether to spend the states resources to prosecute or cut the accused a deal. I am betting on the latter because that is what happened in another case of juror misconduct.

In the second case the accused was charged with a sex crime against his own daughter. The juror decided to conduct his own internet research on the nature of these cases at home during the trial. This effort to enhance what competent evidence was adduced at trial cost the state the verdict and meant the 6-year-old would have to testify all over again. After all the man has a right to face his accuser, twice it seems.

Instead the guilty plead to a lower charge and will spend about a third of the time in prison he would have otherwise spent.

 We doctors of the law spend a lot of time with the Rules of Evidence. We are careful about making sure the evidence is trustworthy, and candidly, we don’t really need any help. Some of the least trustworthy evidence I have seen is what someone decides to post on the internet, free from the vigor of cross-examination.

Like the Rules of Evidence, our system of laws has been developed over generations to be as fair and competent as possible. We need 12 good citizens to believe in that system and make a decision based on what they hear.

But good citizens seem to be in short supply. We are apparently so full of our rights we need not care about our civic duties.

Meanwhile I hope Juror #12 had a good afternoon because no one else did, she never returned and her fate is yet unlearned. It is good I am not deciding what to do about Juror #12.

Dont Take The Hearsay Rule Personally

I have clients that do this.

They come into the office, relate a story and declare a conclusion. I lean back in my chair, review my notes and I tell them about 2/3rds of it is inadmissible as evidence. This is not well taken, like I am telling them they are unable to relate what they heard accurately. Well I’m not, but the hearsay rule is.

The rule reads something like this:

No statement, made out of court, shall be admitted into evidence for the truth of the matter asserted.

What?

Lets break it down: HEAR. You hear someone something,  assume it is true, then turn and then SAY it to someone else like a Judge and ask him to assume it is true too.

Example: “John told me the light was green when I went through the intersection”. Using this statement to prove the color of the light is hearsay. My clients will then  come to Johns defense, as if he is being accused of lying, which really confuses the issue.

It’s so much better if you actually saw the light. “I saw the light was green when I went through the intersection”. Not hearsay.

It’s just remarkable how often I interview a witness or a client and find most of what they have to say is based not on their own first hand knowledge, what they actually saw but instead a mass of hearsay, peppered with preexisting judgments about the actors involved and a personal agenda.

Hearsay. It’s an old rule, but a good rule. Please, don’t take it personally.

Evidence : As Seen on TV

There are no rules of evidence on television but that is where most folks learn to practice law.

On television lawyers can do anything, present anything and say anything and the judge always follows the script. The problem of evidence in real courtrooms is that this is not television and what may be admissible in fiction may not be admissible in a real court.

If you think about it Rules of Evidence are important so the fate of people and their property are not just a question of emotion or prejudice or the right scriptwriter, and instead their fate is based on what is reliable, or authentic, or can withstand a good questioning.

People come to me with their opinions and declare it to be evidence. Bits of paper that may support their position become facts set in stone when handled by them, but go up like so much smoke when marked by the clerk, offered as evidence then objected to on any number of basis; hearsay, authentication, the best evidence rule, the list goes on.

Then they get mad. Well fine, be mad, but what you see on TV is not evidence.