Cat Seizure in Bankruptcy

One reason we revolted from Britain: Debtors prison. When you couldn’t pay your debts they put you in jail until you could. Seems really strange, doesn’t it? So, well, foreign.

So the concept that one could not be jailed for his debts and has a right to discharge debts in bankruptcy has been with us from the beginning.

And how have Americans reacted to this freedom? They exercise it regularly. Even after the “get tough” Reform Act of 2005 there is a lot a debtor gets to keep in terms of assets notwithstanding declaring bankruptcy. Check out Title 11 section 522 of the United States Code. You get to keep your retirement, 401(k) and IRA. All of it. Such a deal.

Of course various Federal Court Districts around the country have interpreted things differently here and there, sometimes as close as from the Eastern District of Washington ( a closet Red State ) to the Western District of Washington ( which makes this a Blue State in every  Presidential election ). Sometimes within the District decisions vary from Trustee to Trustee.

Once in a recent 341 meeting of creditors the Trustee was examining my client as to her statement of debts and monthly budget. He noted she was discharging veterinary bills and had pet food in her budget. “But”, he triumphantly noted, “you have not listed any pets in your list of assets! Where are your pets!?!”

“I have three cats”, my client confessed, then added “Do you want my cats?”

The Trustee relented, but I had visions of him selling pelts to pay her debts. I am not making this up.

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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.

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.