Primogeniture

It is extraordinary how many people come into my office believing the oldest son somehow has some inherent right to govern the estate of the parents.

Being a lawyer, I start looking for authority for this rule. I start with Exodus 13-

The Lord said to Moses, “Set apart for me the first boy born in every family. The oldest son of every Israelite mother belongs to me. Every male animal that is born first to its mother also belongs to me.”moses

And thus Primogeniture was born, as well as animal law.

Note the ancient practice of Primogeniture called for the first born male to actually inherit, not just govern his parents estate. This lead to the ancient practice of fratricide as well.

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”
And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

—Genesis 4:1-8
cain and abel
It has never been clear to me his motive, Abel was not the oldest. Cain was going to inherit anyway. Perhaps Cain got bad legal advise from the internet.

Here is something to keep the modern mind away from such sin; slayers do not inherit. See Revised Code of Washington.

All Things Being Equal

I saw this bumper sticker in Seattle yesterday.

equality

I am a student of how far that love goes. I mean, should we put weights on the flamenco dancer so I can keep up with her? flamenco guitar and dancer

Or take hiring a lawyer for example. Do you really want him to be an equal? I seriously doubt this, but I have to say, there are multiple occasions where I have been asked to buy into my clients emotional state as the place from which decisions are taken, rather than remaining the objective advocate I think the client wants.

Sometimes I have a guy come in and tell me he “has a great case” and goes on to demonstrate with remarkable detail why we are not equals and the law school education and 30 years of experience really does mean something.

Note I do not say lawyers are better than their clients, but they rarely think like a lawyer and if they could they probably wouldn’t be in my office.

If I could write down how to think like a lawyer I would but here is the best I can do:

What a lawyer has to do is sort out the wheat from the chaff.
wheat thresher
I am not sure that would fit on a bumper sticker, and our task cannot be diluted into a catchy, likable sound byte but here are the facts:

When the client arrives with the plan for what the lawyer, like a chess piece, is to do it is the job of the lawyer to decide what to do, and disregard the directions from the less experienced client, as all things are not equal, unfortunately.

Need Not Be Present To Win

After the funeral a dozen people or so show up at the lawyers office, some times the same day, for the reading of the will. I think they get this idea this must happen from television and the movies. Television and the movies is where this unnecessary step belongs.
funeral procession
First, there generally is no reading of the will. Instead everyone with an interest in the estate gets a copy, but there are no elderly barristers with cherry lined law library waiting with fire blazing to read wills as funerals end.
read will

Second, you need not be present to win. When a person dies with a will leaving someone else property, the gift vests. Even if there is no will, by operation of law some heirs just plain take by doing nothing.

But there is always a catch, the vesting is subject to probate.
spendthrift
In other words, we have to pay the bills first.

Occasionally the lawyer will be hired to read the will but usually it is a huge disappointment for everyone involved. We don’t have a cherry wood lined conference room full of old books with fire blazing in the fireplace.
lawyers office
People fail to wear black or otherwise dress appropriately.
bad funeral wear

People do get upset, say things they might later regret, and otherwise misbehave. That part is like television and the movies. And that is why most lawyers refuse to read any wills to the family.

Title credits to Valetta King, Office Manager at Newton Kight LLP

There is No Trap Door in Superior Court

There is no trap door in Superior Court. trap door

This is not vaudeville, “Laugh In” or some totalitarian state.
HitlerAccused 1944

When someone lies in court, the opponent has to be prepared to confront them with a prior inconsistent statement made under oath somewhere during cross examination. That is not the same as arguing with them.

argument
Don’t expect the Judge to somehow magically know when a person is lying. Clairvoyance is not a requirement to take on the robes.
clairvoyant

Every month it seems someone appears in my office with a document someone has signed under oath, or declaration swearing the contents to be the truth “on pain of perjury” and declaring they have lied!

Truth is hard to find. One mans black is another mans white.

Star trek black and white

My Dad used to say that the reason we lawyers have jobs is one guy cannot see the other guys point of view. And that is why there are no trap doors or sudden death in civil or criminal law.

Modern fact finding is an advanced, yet frustrating concept. It takes time, and eventually there is some result. Better this way than by popular sentiment, strong man leadership or mob rule. French sloganguitene

Escheat- Your Property Goes to the State

Recently I heard an account of the Roman leader Sulla, (138 BC-78 BC) who decreed not only his political opponents but also those of wealthy families should be slaughtered so as to have their property escheat to the state so as to pay his army.
Sullahead

Even today, those without obvious takers of property like children or siblings, nieces and nephews, are at risk for this Roman escheat to the state, unless they have a will of course. However even after the fall of Rome it was not always so.

Things were more civilized by 1066 when Britain was successfully invaded for the last time.
Invasion of England

By then it was just a given that when you died, even though you may have paid for the land with a lifetime of rents and military service, the real property of which you were “seized” reverted to the feudal lord.

You really wanted to be a lord then, unless you were King Harold II, who died after receiving a Norman arrow to the eye at Hastings.

arrow in the eye

All his feudal retainers lost their rights in land to the Norman conquest; William was in charge and started parceling out the country to his army.

Of course sometimes the land was given to the vassal who fought for William with extras, such as adding the term “and his heirs” meaning the knight would be able to leave the property to his children. Thus it was not best to die childless in feudal England however, or the land will escheat back to the William once again.

William the Conqueror

The record keeping wasn’t all that good the either. Paper was expensive and it took a lot to make up a deed. One had to know Latin, and then find the right rock from the field to represent the transfer to tie to the deed.

medeval deed

If the lord had no paper or couldn’t write, let alone in Latin, typically he would call together the neighbors for a ceremony where he took up a dirt clod from the land in question, and placed it in the hands of the grantee vassal, thereby making the latter “seized” of the land.

Hopefully people remembered whether you were seized of the land for your heirs as well. I guess the take away from this sort of transfer is the vassal wants lots of witnesses, preferably young and healthy.

In consideration for these grants the lord got a share of the crops or other profits from the land.
Medeval farming 2

These ancient dues predated the Conquest, and William apparently liked them so much he just kept the rent the same. Perhaps that is why no one has successfully invaded England since, and loyalty to the Crown remains intact.

Today in the United States you can will your property to whomever you wish, just be sure to do so, lest the lords who govern your state end up with it.

The Existentialist Parent Names Her Child

child with tatoosI have decided the spate of new and inventive names which process through my practice must be the desire to ensure ones child is a unique individual, not part of the faceless masses living an existentialist challenge, otherwise lost in an vast and uncaring world, but taking solace in the reality his mother gave him a name that no one will forget, and at the same time cannot spell but phonetically.

I see divorces, custody cases and wills where I have to speak with a straight face about children named “Breeze”, “Shady” or the worst: “Swastika”.

Then I have to spell the names too, which are also cast forever in the new and inventive spelling the parents come up with shortly after the birth. Jane becomes “Jeayne”, Richard becomes “Reshard”, and Sally becomes “Saily”.

Whatever happened to names that evoked love and caring like those of my grandparents generation: Clara, Martha, and Lenore or strength and morality like Stephan, Ralph or James?

Some names seem to be drawn from the Presidents; Madison, Jefferson, and one client whose last named happened to be Lincoln, well, you know.

Media plays a huge role. After Star Wars was released in 1977 all kinds of “Leah’s” and “Luke’s” were named. No “Darth’s” I am aware of, nor “Chewbacca”, but a few “Hans” have crossed my desk, but then that is a strong European name in any case. Besides, I think Harrison Ford played a man with the shortened version “Han”. His mother was an existentialist too.

Then there is gender shifting. My grandfathers first name was Leslie, which was popular in 1905 for men, yet when when my cousin was born in the 1960’s she was given that name as it was popular for girls. “Taylor” is a name I see often and have to ask the client, “girl or boy?”

Finally no one uses a last name anymore. “Hi, I am Jim” is the introduction, rather than “Hi, I am James Smith, it is a pleasure to meet you”. Formal greetings are apparently as out of style as anything traditional.

Fortunately the law allows for the existentialist child to change his name in a District Court action after turning 18. This is so common I believe there are forms available at the courts themselves. Perhaps Swastika will change his name to something less political, like Adolf.

The Sands of Iwo Jima Timeshare

Sands of Iwo JimaClients come in with timeshare presented as two different legal problems:
1) Contract, as in how do I get out of this and
2) Estate planning, what happens to this when I die.

The first is usually answered by you sell it for a lot less than you paid for it.

The second depends on whether you only have a license to spend your vacation in some remote location the United States took by force, or you actually own some of that sand in fee simple absolute. More common is the license variety represented by “points”.

Shortly after I began composing this piece an estate planning client came in with the points variety. She actually uses the points. Much like any other amphibious invasion she spends considerable time planning and plotting more than a year in advance in order to maximize her usage, and not get stuck with the leftovers of places our country has seized but no one really wants, like a vacation on Iwo Jima.

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.