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.

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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

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 Doctrine of Virtual Representation Can’t Save The Farm

Sorry, but this does not mean they have passed a law which allows the client to log on to an interactive website and have a virtual lawyer who does whatever you tell him. Instead the concept predates the internet by centuries and means you are stuck with the decisions of those who came before you were born.

The Doctrine of Virtual Representation is a common law concept which means what we do today about our property can bind our heirs; both those that have been born or are yet to be born.

Imagine the chaos if we lacked this rule. Generations who come after decide they were not adequately represented in the deeds Grandpa did, and sue the estate for a larger share.

I had a great-grandfather who lost the ranch in a poker game. There was a divorce. How would it be if I now decided Great-grandma didn’t get enough out of her husband for that folly when the decree entered? So I look up his descendants and sue them?

Nope. Better to just get in your old truck and head on down the highway to the future, and forget about the past. What is done is done.

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.

Deathbed Gifts – Many Unhappy Returns

At some point your beloved elderly relative names you as attorney in fact in her durable power of attorney. You graciously accept the role and help her paying her bills and otherwise managing the house as her time on earth grows long.

Months, perhaps years later as your elderly relative lays dying she hands you her antique vase and declares “I want you to have this”. You accept graciously. Later you leave taking the vase with you.

Upon awakening the next day you find she has expired during the night. First there is the shock, then the funeral arrangements, and finally the probate gets underway. Everyone wants to know where the antique vase has gone. You tell the rest of the family our dear departed has given this to you.

The families response: PROVE IT.

The law in Washington is on the side of the family. The question is whether undue influence exists. For a will, contestants must show that undue influence lead to the execution of the will. For those who have done the labor of being attorney in fact who now find themselves defending a deathbed gift, the person receiving the gift must prove he did not practice undue influence by clear cogent and convincing evidence, far more than a preponderance.  Good luck. He had a “confidential relationship” which essentially presumes people in this role take advantage of the elderly.

Plan on returning the vase and save the attorney fees. It is curious at least that while we allow and encourage persons to transfer authority to manage affairs to someone they trust, rather than allowing an expensive guardianship to accrue, we presume they are acting with avarice if something as simple as a human act of gratitude is practiced as a last act in a life.