Will Contests

My Daddy ( a lawyer ) used to say Judges are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

But there is one thing I know you will get when you contest a will most of the time: Defeated.

Most of these cases are brought on three basis; 1 )Testamentary Capacity: for example the Dad’s mind was gone when he signed this will or 2) Undue Influence: someone taking an unusually large or unnatural gift had a position of trust with Dad or 3) Fraudulent Misrepresentation in the execution of the document: Dad signed a will when he was told it was a contract to buy a new Ford.

This is a complex area of shifting presumptions of law which start out favoring the will as written, and is peppered with problems of proof to over come that presumption ranging from excluded testimony due to the Dead Man’s Statute to just how good your medical expert is who saw Dad before he signed this will.

This trouble is compounded by the standard of proof. The contestant has to prove these things that would invalidate the will by clear cogent and convincing evidence. That is the civil equivalent of putting a man in jail, well beyond a preponderance.

Often the question is would Dad have any reason to do what the will says. If so, it is doubtful the there is much of a contest. Better off spending the attorney fees on a real box of chocolates.

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Another Myth: The Right Lawyer can Win

Nope. not true. The lawyer cannot change the facts. Nor can he or she change the law. At best they can persuade. Here is something Aristotle taught me about persuasiveness (Yes, I am old enough to have known him personally):

What you want to persuade the court to do must be logos or logical.

What you want to persuade the court to do must be ethos or ethical.

What you want to persuade the court to do must be pathos or likable.

WHAT? The court has to like what they do? That’s right ladies and gentlemen we have to count the Judge’s emotions, reactions, take aways or whatever you want to call that have a dramatic impact on your case. I recall one chambers conference where my father was discussing possible outcomes in the case when the judge said to him “I wouldn’t do that even if I liked your client”. I am not making this up.

So, the right lawyer cannot change the outcome of the case. But the wrong lawyer can certainly lose it. Is the lawyer you might hire logical, ethical and likeable? Do they seem to be on a mission or really interested in your case?

And candidly ask yourself, do you think your case is logical? Is it ethical? Do you think it is likable?

Pathos. Think about it.

Personal Property At Death- A Crime in Progress

The worst thing that can happen to a lawyer is to be in a fight over personal property, particularly after the owner of the property has died. The people this unfortunate testator intended to have the asset post mortem may never see their wishes followed because the lawyer with any experience at all refuses to get involved with the fight.

Personal property is best described as objects people can pick up and walk off with at any time, but right after a death the owner is not in a position to object. This is opposed to real property which is of course dirt and the structures on it, or intellectual property like stocks and bonds that are generally not laying around the house at any given moment of one’s last breath.

For some reason it doesn’t enter the mind of the purloining party that this object doesnt belong to them, and that first lesson of kindergarten still applies post mortem. Instead it seems a new rule applies that begins with the phrase “He doesnt need this any more…..”.

So lets say the disgruntled heirs who have perhaps only the residual clause of the will to support the claim (which is a perfectly valid means to pass property ), as they are the takers under that final clause. The lawyer has to first prove the deceedant actually owned the property the dispossessed heir claims to have existed. Guns, tools, lamps, a wagon wheel from the 19th century, photos, silver, 1963 Seattle Worlds Fair memorabilia, all are among the claimed “disappeared” that have crossed this lawyers desk and have gone on to require a disproportionate amount of time to the value of the assets in question. We literally have gone to the local hardware stores trying to show the deceedant actually bought the Kobalt tools he always said he was going to buy, without any success.

We have in our state a great little statute that is supposed to help with this, and many other wills from other jurisdictions have something similar. The statute allows the person who has made the will to leave a list of who is to get what personal property at death, signed and dated, no witnesses required, so long as the will refers to the list and the will is properly executed with the two witnesses initially. The list can be changed at any time by the testator prior to death.

This avoids many problems post mortem. First it proves the testator had at least at one point ownership of the personal property. Secondly we know who he or she intended it to go to. Third, if suddenly someone who had access to the house at the time of death suddenly has the wagon wheel or a nice set of silver at Thanksgiving, we have a pretty good idea what to do next.

The oddity is that any value of object can be transferred by the statute. Our testator may have owned 5 acres of radioactive dirt next door to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation whose value is dubious but also a $100,000 yacht in the Everett Marina. It takes Wills Act formalities with the two witnesses to pass the worthless dirt, but only this list attached to the will to pass the yacht, no witnesses required. This invites fraud and forgery if you ask me, but then I worry for a living because I possess the secret knowledge of lawyers.

Its the Lawyer’s Fault

I was fired today. So were the other lawyers working on an estate. I believe the perception is we were making the simple will complex. Mind you, this was day two of the estate for this lawman, and just a few weeks after the probate was opened.

The problem originates with how we count money; yours, mine or ours? In lawyers terms; your separate property, my separate property or community property. Depending on what chair you sit in the perception is different.

Now that is an educated comment. Now instead the estate will be divided on the basis of ignorance, force of personality, and power structures in the departed’s family. Might makes right.

Never you mind that. It is the lawyers fault for pointing out the law.  Shame on us for charging a fee to help them. From the chair they sit in the perception is all lawyers are just there to use up the estate.

Not so. Most of the estates lawyers I practice with or against are second generation lawyers not really in it for a quick buck. That was the case today.

Recently I was asked how long has it been that a non-lawyer could just go to court and explain his side and have the judge make a ruling without the assistance of counsel. “About a thousand years” I said. Sure you can go, but the number of trip wires that have been laid down in front of you are so numerous you will not recognize yourself or your case on the other side.

Here is how this happened. We The People make a rule, but the rule doesn’t seem right in all circumstances, so We The People start erecting exceptions to the rule and before you know it, it is so criss crossed and cratered you do not really know what it means. If you have any doubt try reading the tax code.

You can blame it on the lawyers if you want. Frankly I was a bit surprised Jimmy Buffett didn’t blame it on us rather than a woman in his famous tune Margaritaville.

Some people claim there’s a lawyer to blame,

But I know, its my own damn fault.

Things Happen Along the Way

In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan departed Spain with 25o officers and crew in five ships. He didnt tell the crew, but the objective was to sail around the world. In 1522 only one of the original ships limped into the port of Seville with 18 of the original Europeans on board along with 3 Indonesians they picked up along the way.

What happened? Stuff. They ran into cannibals on the southern tip of South America, the Pacific was a lot wider than they had expected and they ran short of food, and Magellan himself was killed in the Philipines.

What has this got to do with estate planning? Would you leave on a perilous voyage without a will?  Before the author of the account of the First Voyage Around the World left, he executed a will. That seems prudent, but there is no record if the remaining 249 Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians on board did the same.

This is pretty much what I encounter each day in my practice; a patch work of estate planning executed in bank lobbies, stock brokerage offices and sometimes a lawyer’s office. Why is such a mess?

Conditions change. Emotions wax and wane. People have ideas about what the people they leave behind “need” without considering what really happens when application of Dead Man’s Statute prohibitions on hearsay are made, or the impact of an inheritance on a disabled person without a preexisting Special Needs Trust really means.

We are on a perilous voyage. All kinds of decisions made in the wake of your ship may come back to haunt you. Think about it.

Empty Grandmas Accounts Before She Dies to Avoid Probate?

I wrote this post because I saw this question as a top search on my dashboard.

The answer is no. There are several problems with this approach.

1) Crime. That is what this is, Crime. Go to Jail, Do not pass GO, do not collect any $200. You will be characterized as “financial exploiter” at least if you do this in the state named after the first President, and that means you fall under the “slayer statute” and as we all know, slayers do not inherit. Or at least I think we all know this.

2) Breach of Fiduciary duty. There I go again with all that legal stuff. The trouble is that “legal stuff” can get you in trouble, if not in jail, at least sued. Lets say grandma put you on the account “just in case”. It is still not your money. While the bank is authorized to allow you to remove it, the disposition of those funds really have to be for grandma’s benefit and not those who are left here on earth when she passes. She put you on the account because she trusted you, and when we start hearing the word “trust” all kinds of duties attach.

3) Joint Tennant with Right of Survivorship. Lets say grandma opened this account with you and personally, not the bank employee, checked the box that says this or shortened to JTWROS. That is a will substitute that means when she dies the money is yours without probate. Note the timing. It will not be a defense to say that you will inherit this money some day anyway through this non-probate transfer. What if she needs the money before then?

I suspect there are more reasons not to do this but the post is getting too long. You may have good reasons to avoid probate, but this approach is too dangerous. In layman’s terms, don’t take things that don’t belong to you. You don’t have to go to law school to know this. I think we all learned this in kindergarten.

Living and Dying in Casual Wear

We have become too casual in America. We no longer dress for dinner, church, or work. Open collar is the look. Someone decided we all wear jeans on Fridays at the office, (everyone except me that is). OK fine, call it freedom or liberty or whatever you like but there is some harsh legal environments we really can’t be causal about.

You may find yourself in a bank, opening a checking and savings account. You are wearing Dockers and a shirt from Lands End.  You may find yourself in the personnel office of your new employer filling out forms about all kinds of things, including your 401(k) dressed in the style of the corporation, which in Seattle means you shop at REI. You may find yourself in your living room, with a life insurance sales man, and a lot of paper, and a lot of distractions and might even be in your pajamas. You may say to yourself, well, what do these have in common?

Death. You are probably making dispositions of what happens to the money you are handling in each situation. Not so casual, is it?

And Death changes things. Conduct that one would never believe possible from friends and neighbors, people you have trusted for years suddenly become crazed with greed when a windfall appears available. Naming your best friend as the beneficiary of any of these instruments tests him “to do the right thing”. He might fail the test. He might decide perhaps you really intended to disinherit your kids. There is little your lawyer can do about it.

Many of us in this practice draft in “superwill” or “blockbuster” terms into the will to fix all these issues with the will, clearly designating where property is to go if you have casually checked some wrong box in scenarios as listed above, but they can’t fix all of them, depending on the State’s statute on the topic. Generally these  super terms in the will won’t fix your causal approach to death if you open that account, are hired at a place that tolerates the REI look or have a visit from the life insurance salesman after the date you have executed your will.

Life and Death. It is time to get serious when you think about both. Dress for the event.