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.

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The Courthouse Blues

There are two kinds of people to be found in the courthouse: Those on their way to hearings, and those emerging from hearings. It is not unlike a hospital.

Entering either building the litigant or patient is apprehensive or they are overconfident. Some presume the death penalty. Some do not appreciate the peril they are in. All are hopelessly at the mercy of the lawyers or doctors.

Leaving the buildings there is either relief, increased anxiety or profound sorrow.

But the courthouse alone can in one day change the balance of power between litigants. Often the litigant arrives with a smugness, a sense of entitlement or self-righteousness that never plays well. Humility, expressed in pleadings, appearance or speech can go a long way. Unfortunately this is considered unduly meek by some, and they do not even consider they might be wrong.

Emerging from the hearings we hear the long wail of those who have lost. Think of the painting The Scream by Munch.  Or there is the rush outside, the cigarette poked in the mouth and hurriedly lit, family and friends trailing behind.

Like a soldier that has seen too much, I am no longer moved when a woman loses custody of her children. Normally this is because either the father is just a better parent, but more often because the mother has presumed she is “free” and can do just about anything and still retain her children.

It is no longer so. Our state adopted an equal rights amendment to our state constitution when it was fashionable to do so, 1972. The amendment also declares the sexes have equal responsibility.

You have come a long way baby. You have an equal right to the courthouse blues.

How Not to Pick a Lawyer

A browse through the yellow page advertising for lawyers is always an adventure. The larger the advertisement the greater the cost to the lawyer to support the advertisement. The impact on the ultimate fees charged is usually evident, without any real enhancement to competence in my experience.

One guy’s yellow page advertisement added the tag line “Serving you locally, and nation wide” which is impossible as he would have to be licensed in 50 states. He was later disbarred, can you imagine?

If you are going to rely on the yellow pages, I recommend you cut out the pictures of the people who seem to have the best advertisement, arrange them in a circle then place a bottle in the middle of the circle.

Then spin the bottle.

Dead Stick Control

In 2001 the legislature of the Evergreen State elected to extend the Rule against Perpetuities to 150 years. It had been 21. What that meant that anyone you wanted to have inherit your property had to be born within 21 years of your death. Now you can extend your dead hand well into the future. But should you?

Real Property, as we have come to understand, does not always go up in value. Neither do stocks, although the people who sell and trade them would argue with me. Do you really want to lock the trustee into holding stock for 150 years?

Will what you write out today make any sense when it is time for the trust to pay out? 150 years is a long time. Lots can change.  Stock in buggy whip company for example in 1861 would be worthless today. With 150 years to stretch out property, this means a soldier in the American Civil War dying at the First Battle of Bull Run, in July 21st 1861 could literally leave his property to a baby born on or before July 21st 2011.

What is really volatile however are social values. Consider the “Parentage” statute was until a few years ago called the “Paternity” statute, because until then maternity was a matter of fact whereas paternity was a matter of opinion. It is no longer so.  And for generations the statute came under the title of “Bastardy”.  We don’t use that term any longer, and instead society has apparently agreed to accept and pay for the results of all this free love. Can you imagine if our Civil War soldier tried to control the behavior of his descendants 150 years later?

What if that trust placed prohibitions on consumption of alcohol or tobacco as a condition of that child receiving his money? Perhaps the soldier could have prohibited the baby from owning slaves. Perhaps he could have conditioned the trust payments on choice of mate for his heir being a certain religion. Or maybe he just wanted to make a point about values that seem to be important to just about anyone living a life in America.

It is said it is still the case in the State of Louisiana when a young man declares he has chosen a bride there are three questions; Whose her Daddy? Is she Catholic? and Can she make a rue? From the perspective of a father these are good questions. They are also good questions from the perspective of a great-great-great grandfather.

Lets create a new law that will make the world a more fun place.

Lets adopt a law recognizing ship captains can actually perform weddings on board their vessels while at sea. This would then make our law congruent with the myth.

Lets require a dearly departed’s will actually be read to the assembled grieving family, some of whom eagerly await to hear what bit of the material world they have been left. Attire must be black.

Lets require courtrooms actually be filled with curious onlookers throughout the entire trial, as it is in the movies, gasping at the appropriate moments.

Lets regulate Elvis impersonators, requiring a license and fees.

Let’s install bike lanes on freeways.

Let’s adopt left hand drive like they have in the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Hong Kong and a few other former colonies, along with Japan and assorted other countries in the Far East.

Lets require live entertainment for people while they are waiting for licensing and vehicle registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Lets require postal employees to wear costumes of their favorite historical figures.

Lets require Disney to open and operate a theme park in every state, granting a waiver to Alaska and Hawaii as they already qualify as theme parks.

Lets adopt a 4 day work week. This leaves three days rather than two for lawyers to catch up on work.

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.

My Parents Were Tough

I have not always worked for the dead. Much of this lawman’s life has been spent as a mercenary in the war between the men and the women. The technical term for the conflict is called “family law”. Often the fight is over the kids. The battle lines are drawn over who spends more time with them.

I think a lot about how parents are today and compare them with how I grew up. These days I am getting evidence supplied by the witnesses that one parent or the other is lousy because they don’t show up for all of Johnny’s sports practices or music lessons. Not just the games, or the recital, but the practice.

Contrast with growing up in the 1960’s- my parents handed me my skis with cable bindings and lace ski boots along with a wad of cash and put me on the ski bus in my hometown that was bound for Stevens Pass. I was age 9. Have a nice day. By the grace of God I found my ski school, learned to ski, and found my way back to the bus. Others were not so fortunate.

I recall one scene vividly. One of my classmates was unable to handle the same sort of situation and was left behind on the slope by the rest of the class, his skis crossed and crying uncontrollably. “You don’t want to end up like Rudy over there, do you?” my instructor asked me. Nope, time to rise to the occasion with all my 9 years of experience to fall back on.

At the end of the day my parents were waiting at the bus station to retrieve me. Almost everyone else on the bus was in the same situation. Contrast with today where the parents are expected apparently, to leave work to attend every extracurricular even in a sluggish economy or be branded an uncaring parent in court or elsewhere.

Or how about turning out for football? This was their idea on how to toughen up sensitive me. Deposited in the Projects with a helmet and shoulder pads ( in the 60’s the parents actually had to pay for this, it wasnt a village that raised a child ) I was issued a jersey and football pants by the Boys Club there; there to learn the ways of playing with kids from the other side of the tracks.

I was beat up every day. After a while I was accepted and the beatings ceased, probably because started hitting back. I have often said it was that experience that made a trial attorney of me. My father is a lawyer so I learned a lot from him as well. My mother is not a lawyer, but lets give credit where credit is due: she taught me how to cross-examine.

These are not the parenting choices of today. The ethic is to hover, as in a helicopter, the child always hearing the comforting sound of the “thump thump” of either the rotor blades or perhaps the sound is their parents breathless hearts in constant care of them. I am not sure which is right, the millennium parent or the parents of the baby boomers. I do know that conflict is a constant and knowing how to deal with it independently, particularly in this job, is a necessary skill.

My parents were tough. And I am a better man for it.