Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Family battles over inheritances are the stuff of great novels. In the courts, however, the family battles over the appointment of a guardian or conservator can be as contentious and difficult as any will contest. The cases arise because there is an elder who is alleged to need help in managing care or money. Sometimes the battle arises because the elder has lawyered up and opposes the appointment of anyone to take charge of his or her affairs. More commonly, however, these conflicts end up in the courtroom because the children of the elder are battling each other for position and control within the family. Whenever squabbling siblings are at the center of the dispute someone will propose that a professional fiduciary be appointed. (A fiduciary is someone who works for the benefit of another, and I use the term here to mean the person nominated to serve as a guardian or conservator.) Court visitors are fond of this option, and judges—who often want quiet as much as they want justice—often prefer appointing a professional to sorting out the conflicting accusations of the elder’s children.
Professional fiduciaries come in a variety of shapes and sizes. At one end of the spectrum are the trust departments of large financial institutions. Most bank and investment houses have a trust department that will serve as fiduciary for grandma if the money is right. The banks are neither uniform nor transparent about how much they charge for these services, but you should not expect a financial institution to accept your case unless grandma has at least half a million. Each year, these fiduciaries charge a percentage of the amount being managed. A common charge is two percent of the value of the trust per year. Thus, if you put in the minimum amount of $500,000, the bank will charge at least $10,000 for managing grandma’s money. They may charge additional fees for financial management and investment advice. Bank trust departments and dedicated trust companies claim great skill in managing money and bringing in large returns. These claims had more weight prior to the recent recession. In any case, they employ professional money managers and produce long incomprehensible quarterly statements of profit and loss.
There is some question these days whether actively managed investments can ever return more than computer managed index funds, particularly when the manager is scraping off at least two percent every year for his efforts, but that is a subject for another post.
Banks have special exemption that allows them to be serve as a trustee of trusts without a court order or court oversight. Thus, the banks and investment houses occupy the world of large trusts, more so than the world of guardians and conservators.
The next candidates for the job of professional fiduciary are fiduciary firms. These are small businesses, usually partnerships or sole proprietorships, made up of social workers with a head for bookkeeping. They can serve as guardian, conservator, or both. The firms consist of one or more certified professional fiduciaries and a staff of case workers, bookkeepers, and office professionals. These folks are always appointed by a court, and specialize in attempting to both protect the elder and stabilize the battling family. They manage money by stopping the bleed out to greedy relatives and attempting not to lose it thereafter. They are more likely to leave the elder’s money with the people who are currently managing it than to take up active management of investments. What they do well is protect the elder’s physical well being and make sure the elder’s money does not disappear.
This group of professional fiduciaries gets paid by the hour rather than by commission. The partners tend to charge about a hundred dollars an hour with case workers and office staff charging substantially less. Their charges must be court approved.
The last rung on the ladder of professional fiduciaries consist of sole practitioners. These folks are certified professional fiduciaries who practice out of their homes or out of small offices. They may contract with case workers and even have a small office staff, but when you get one of these you are depending on the skill of the person appointed to serve, not on a functioning bureaucracy. They are not money managers and don’t pretend to be. They are social workers willing to protect the elder's money. These people are the most “hands on” of the bunch and are likely to have the most interaction with the families. This intimacy is good if you get along with the fiduciary and not so good if the relationship goes sour.
Every professional fiduciary comes with a lawyer. Professional fiduciaries develop relationships among elder law lawyers and use the same two or three lawyers whenever the can. They refer work to their favorite lawyers and those lawyers refer work to them. Lawyers and law firms have personalities. Some firms are grumpy; some are friendly; some are humble; and some are pompous. If you are considering inviting a professional fiduciary into your family, it is worthwhile inquiring who will be doing the legal work.
Professional fiduciaries also have reputations for being good at certain kinds of cases. Some work hard to bring fighting families together; others are known for being tough and whipping misbehaving families into line. Some are great at forensic accounting, and others are good at locating publicly funded social services. It can be hard to tell what kind you are getting. Online reviews are useless, because no matter how skilled and compassionate the fiduciary is, at least half of his or her clients are going to hate her. The haters write the online reviews. The best bet is to have an elder law lawyer you trust recommend someone. Your lawyer is likely to recommend someone he or she likes, but because the lawyer knows several different fiduciaries, this biased recommendation is better than none at all.
Once a professional fiduciary has come into your family, you might as well accept that the fiduciary will be there until the elder dies. Courts who find a family so dysfunctional that a professional is warranted almost never turn around and rule that the professional is no longer needed. If you truly need to get rid of a professional, consult the article I wrote on the subject here.
Another concern about professional fiduciaries is that they tend to favor the party that selected them. When I am trying to recruit a professional fiduciary for a case, I sell my case in the same way that clients sell their cases to me. I explain how this is an easy case with plenty of assets to pay their fees. If the fiduciary likes the case, and thinks I may well bring more just like it in the future, the fiduciary is going to make close call decisions that favor my side. That is a fact of life. The fiduciary is going to answer my calls a lot faster than the calls from the lawyer who opposed his or her appointment. If you have a choice, it is better to be from the side of the family that supported the appointment of the fiduciary than from the side that opposed it.
Having a professional fiduciary managing the care of grandma can be a blessing or a curse. I have seen a relationship between a mother and children destroyed because the children were put in charge of her money, and then repaired when the children turned the job over to a professional. On the other side, I have seen fiduciaries trample family feelings and run roughshod over existing family systems in pursuit of some mythical “best interests” of the elder. There is a saying the social service world that a “barely adequate” family member produces better results when it comes to care taking than does a well trained professional outsider. Professionalism has its advantages and its dark side. When considering a professional fiduciary a family must balance risk and reward; not an easy thing to do when enmeshed in the high emotions of a protective proceedings.
Sunday, June 7, 2015
Being a probate litigator, or litigator of any stripe, for that matter presents the lawyer with a conflict of interest. His job is to advocate for his client and argue in favor of the client’s position. Were a trial a football game, the lawyer would be both the coach—designing the game plan, and the quarterback—charged with leading the team to victory. Simultaneously, the lawyer is expected to be giving the client smart, unbiased advice on the client’s chances of winning or losing the case. He is not just the coach and the quarterback, he is also the bookie—expected to handicap the case and give his client the best information possible about the potential outcomes. This allows the client to make intelligent decisions about settlement and trial. In this post I will pass over the lawyer as the coach and quarterback. I want to concentrate on the lawyer as bookie.
Predicting is hard. In the second election of Barack Obama major polling organizations, with all their computers and highly paid actuaries, failed miserably in predicting Obama’s easy victory. Predicting the outcomes of civil trials is more difficult than predicting the outcome of elections, and the lawyers who must do the predicting are not as skilled, informed, or as objective as the statisticians at the Gallup company.
Most of the mistakes made by lawyers and clients in predicting the outcome of civil trial arise out of confirmation bias ("the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypothesis). The lawyers and parties give more emphasis and credibility to the evidence that supports their side than they do to the evidence that supports the other side. We interpret the world around us in a manner that supports or beliefs about it, and discount those facts that don’t support that view.
Trial work takes massive preparation—probably five to ten hours of lawyer time for every hour of court time. There is an old saying that the lawyer who wins a lot of cases spends as much time preparing his opponent’s case as he does his own. The wisdom in this legal aphorism is that the lawyer must understand and appreciated the case the other side will be making in order to competently oppose it. He must avoid confirmation bias in all its insidious forms so that he can make intelligent decisions while at the same time being a cheerleader for his team. It is a difficult job.
In my years practicing law, my clients and I have learned some hard lessons about confirmation bias and many other errors in prediction. I have some suggestions.
You Have a One in Four Chance of Losing Any Case that Goes to TrialA prominent Portland litigator suggested to me that no case that goes to trial has a better than eighty percent chance of winning. That means the chances of losing are one in five. I think he overestimates. When the odds of losing get greater than seventy-five percent, the defendants move to Paraguay or declare bankruptcy. If you have a trial date in a civil case and settlement negotiations have broken down, you have at least a one in four chance of losing.
If you are a client and think that you can’t lose, you are wrong. Confirmation bias has probably so fogged your mind that you cannot see the truth. If your lawyer tells you there is no chance of your losing, then that lawyer has let the role of coach and quarterback impair his ability to accurately handicap the case. The courtroom is an unpredictable place. Witnesses fail to show up or testify as expected. Judges can be grumpy or prejudiced.
The same lawyer who gave me the eighty percent rule also observed that trial strategies conducted in the months before seldom last longer than the first witness. Yogi Berra said, “Prediction is hard, particularly about the future.” If you find it easy and it is about the future of your case, you are doing it wrong.
Witnesses Count and Count Your WitnessesJudges (we don’t have juries in probate cases) want to hear from witnesses who were present and paying attention when the important events in the case took place. A good witness has four qualities: He or she was present when the crucial events occurred, will testify truthfully no matter what the question, doesn’t have an axe to grind, and shows respect toward all the people in the courtroom. A single quality witness can carry a case and overpower several witnesses who do not pass the four part test. When the witnesses for both sides are of equal quality, more is better.
Lawyers and clients should count witnesses before they even file the case. The lawyer must ask who will testify for him and how convincing will they be. How many people will testify for him and how many will testify against him. I am often approached by potential clients who tell me that his or her grandmother was unduly influenced to give the family home or some other large asset to a family member who is not them. I ask how it is that they know the gift was the result of undue influence. The response is that grandma never would have done it without there having been undue influence. I ask if my potential client saw anything else or knew of any witnessed to the undue influence. The client responds that she didn’t actually see it because she was out of state and hadn’t seen grandma in years and that all her relatives who might have been witnesses are aligned against her. So I add up the witnesses. I have one—my client who was out of state the whole time, didn’t see or hear anything, and is estranged from the entire family. Grandma may well have been subject to undue influence, but the witnesses are not there. Which brings me to a related rule.
The Other Side is not Going to Produce the Evidence You Need to WinIn civil cases lawyers get to do what is called “discovery.” That means that the lawyers can make the other side produce documents related to the case and question the witnesses for the other side in sworn depositions. My clients are often quite certain that the other side will produce incriminating documents that will allow me to win. Trust me, that never happens.
Depositions are generally more useful than requests for documents, because depositions let me know whether the person will qualify as a “good witness” according the four tests I set out in the paragraph above about witnesses. The witnesses for the other side never give me in deposition the evidence I need to win: they simply let me know how strong the evidence against me will be.
Cases that go to trial are won or lost on the quality of the evidence that the parties can produce on that day, in that room, before that judge. As lawyer and client, we have to find that evidence and make sure it appears on the day of trial. The other side is not going to do it. So, if lawyer and client are proceeding on the theory that their version of events is the truth, and the truth will magically appear at trial because they are the good guys, the good guys may end up going home losers.
Clients need to understand that they need to bring to court both a legal theory upon which the court might award them some money and some evidence to prove that the events that make the other side responsible actually happened. Suspicion, rumor, and hunches will not suffice.
You Will Not Win By Calling the Other Side Names.Will and trust cases are emotional. The parties don't like each other and there is a tendency to want to make the character of the participants the issue. The reasoning is loosely as follows: the will should be overturned because Joe gets all the money and Joe is a bad person. Unfortunately, inheritances, like sunshine, fall on saints and sinners alike. The issue is not who deserves it, but who the decedent wanted to have it.
This is not to say that character plays no role. The courts mirror society in general. Good looking people are treated better than ugly ones. Polite people fare better than rude ones and people of good character do better than swindlers. On the other hand, if you point Joe's bad character once, you may be doing the court a favor. If you point out Joe's bad character another time, you are being emphatic. However, if you do it a third time, you are being an ass, and people think you are the person with bad character.
The lawyers have a list of things they must prove in order to win the case. The judge has the same list in front of him or her up on the bench. The evidence is supposed to be about something on the list, not the character of the parties. If you veer too far from the list trying to show that the other side is made up of slime balls you can end up looking like a slime ball yourself.
When calling the other side names, keep it short, sweet and to the point. Then move on to the real evidence.
Monday, February 23, 2015
I am not by nature a big picture/policy king of guy. I get quite enough satisfaction reading the law and trying my best to get the details right. When clients complain to me about the unfairness of this or that law, I seldom have anything to say about it. "Write your congressman," I suggest. "As your lawyer I deal with the way the law works today in the county where you live."
On the other hand, I do try to stay current on new popular literature that deals with aging and end of life issues. Most of the new books dealing with aging and death are not that great. One of the exceptions is, Atul Gawande's, Being Mortal. The book contains the author's reflections as both a doctor and a son on the ways in which we die and the ways we have been doing it wrong.
In certain respects, Being Mortal, reiterates the themes addressed in Sherwin Nuland's, How We Die. Nuland's book is a masterpiece and deserves the Pulitizer it received. I enjoyed How We Die immensely, but I like Being Mortal even better.
Gawande's reflections on death and dying are less technical than Nuland's. Missing are the detailed biological mechanisms by which the major causes of death take us out. In its place are many wise and nuanced observations about the decisions the dying and their families face. Two of the things he discussed were of particular interest to me.
First, he talks about the change in values that appears as we get old. We become less competitive, less acquisitive, and more attached to family. In my gerontology classes this was explained as a developmental stage of adult development, but that is not really an explanation. Gawande reports studies showing that everyone's values--expressed as life goals--change when the time is short. Young people, for whom the future seems like an eternity stretching before them, would rather meet new people than spend time with family and old friends. Old people, who know that their time on this earth will not be long, opt for time with family. However, when young people are told that the end is near--their lives will soon be completely disrupted--they do opt for the family and friends. The change in values is a matter of perspective. Making a career and saving for old age is no longer a value when old age is already upon you.
Second, Gawande finally made clear to me how hospice works. It is not a substitute for treatment. When I go to the hospital I give up my quality of life temporarily so that I will have a great quality of life when I get out. The short term stint of bad quality life is made worth it by the amount of good quality life I will have thereafter. As we age, however, and our bodies begin to fail, the stints of bad quality life in the hospital become longer and the times of good quality life thereafter become shorter and more unsure. The tragedy it the person gives up everything in hope of a full and active life once he or she is out of the hospital only to die in the hospital bed after months of being kept alive by experts and machines.
Hospice is the choice to have quality of life today. He points out that with some fatal disease people on the average live longer in hospice than they do in the hospital. It is not so much that they are killed by the cure, but rather that quality of life gives them a reason to live. And that, maybe is Gwande's point. Doctors, nurses and social workers need to play a role in giving their patients a reason to live, for without that all the high tech medical procedures will be of no avail.
The book is thoughtful, intelligent and and often poignant. I recommend it to anybody who is mortal.
Friday, February 20, 2015
I deal with a lot of fiduciaries. A fiduciary is someone who acts for the benefit of another. In the world of probate, the fiduciaries are guardians, conservators, trustees, and personal representatives. Guardians and conservators look after incapacitated people. Trustees look after the beneficiaries of trusts, and personal representatives administer the estates of people who have died.
Some fiduciaries do it for a living. They are the professional fiduciaries. Most fiduciaries are volunteers who do it for family. These are the non-professionals. Each group presents a unique set of problems, but it is the non-professionals that have gotten recent attention.
Some of the movers and shakers in the world of elder law and probate got together and created SAVO -- Special Advocates for Vulnerable Oregonians. The organization is designed to shore up some of the weaknesses in the system. One of its activities is to recruit and train people to check up on guardians to ensure that guardians are actually guarding. Another is to give non-professional fiduciaries training on how to do the job that the court has appointed them to do.
This is a good thing.
When it comes to guardianships and conservatorship, I copy the notice from the SAVO website below:
Effective July 15, 2014, all non-professional* guardians and conservators appointed by the Multnomah County Circuit Court must, within 15 days of their appointment date, register for a class that meets the curriculum requirements of the Multnomah County Non-Professional Fiduciary Education & Training Program. SAVO’s “Oregon Fiduciary 101” meets these requirements. Multnomah County registrants should select the date of their session keeping in mind that they must complete Oregon Fiduciary 101 within 60 days of their appointment date.
The cost of the course may be treated as a cost of administration of the proceeding.
The notice for trustees and personal representatives is very similar.
Effective February 2, 2015, non-professional* trustees and personal representatives appointed by the Multnomah County Circuit Court must, within 15 days of their appointment date, register for a class that meets the curriculum requirements of the Multnomah County Non-Professional Fiduciary Education & Training Program. SAVO’s “Oregon Fiduciary 102” meets these requirements for trustees and personal representatives. Multnomah County registrants should select the date of their session keeping in mind that they must complete Oregon Fiduciary 102 within 60 days of their appointment date.
The cost of the course may be treated as a cost of administration of the proceeding.
The result is that if you want the court to appoint you as a guardian, a conservator, a trustee or a personal representative you must be ready to take a class. The class can be taken online but currently the court is strongly encouraging in-person attendance.
So far I have only had one non-professional fiduciary take the class. She was a guardian and conservator for an elder relative, and my impression is that the class gave her a leg up on handling the job in an efficient and competent manner.
Handling money that is not yours can be difficult. When dealing with my own money I can skip a lot of safeguards, decide certain record keeping isn't worth the trouble, and carry access to my funds in my hip pocket. Managing money for someone else should never be like that, and if I am managing money by court appointment, it never is like that. We lawyers often have a hard time convincing people of the importance of the difference. The class presented by SAVO may help.
Friday, October 10, 2014
The nice thing about being the lawyer in will contests is that the parties to the contest are arguing about money that fell from the sky. The money belonged to the dead person. Nobody involved in the will contest earned it and nobody involved in the contest is going to leave with any less money than they had when they came to the case. Somebody in the will contest is going to get a bunch of money without having to earn it, and somebody else isn't. In the big scheme of things will contests are not that serious. Lawyers I know have clients who will go prison if the case is lost. If my clients lose, they only lose the opportunity to spend somebody else's money.
On the other hand, an inheritance from family is for most people the largest single lump of unearned, untaxed money most people will ever receive. An inheritance can make a huge change in the life of the one who receives it and I perfectly understand why people are willing to fight tooth and nail to get the security that an inheritance can guarantee. I don't have any inheritances coming, so I get up every morning and go to work. I do it to get money. My wife suggests that I also do it because I love the practice and want to see justice done. She is wrong. I do it for the money. If I had a chance to get some money via an inheritance I would do that too.
In will contests the parties very seldom emphasize how much they want and need the dead person's money. They don't want to seem greedy so they devise other reasons for carrying on the fight. The other reasons tend to put the case on a moral plain, pitting good versus evil. There is an aspect of this to any legal case--that's why they call it "courtroom drama"-- but not everybody does it well. This article is about some of the moralizing in will contests that doesn't work.
The most common of the approaches that does not work is the, "I am pursuing this case solely to make sure that grandma's wishes are honored." If you truly believe that the only way to honor your dead grandma is to fight to the bitter end against your relatives over her money, keep quiet about it. It may be the truth and your motives may be pure--you just want to see grandma's wishes carried out. If, however, your battle to honor grandma also means you get a big pile of grandma's money, nobody is going to believe you. Enjoy your pure motives in silence. Will contests destroy families. No one believes that family-destroying litigation honors grandma Probate lawyers have heard the "it's what she wanted" chant so often they are immune and simply don't care. The dead person is dead. He or she no longer has any wishes. Everybody involved is going to feel more kindly toward you if you simply say that you are continuing the litigation because you think you have a winnable case.
The next approach that doesn't work comes from the person who says, "Grandma was strong-willed and opinionated so her will could not have been the result of undue influence." This is often the first thing out of the mouth of someone accused of undue influence. I have written about undue influence elsewhere, so read up on it if the concept is new to you, The fact is that among elders, and maybe the population at large, strong-willed and opinionated people are easier to influence for selfish purposes than those who are more reserved and accepting. The laconic grandma who figures to just leave everything to her children--just like everybody else does--because she will be dead anyway is much harder to influence than the angry elder who dashes about changing her estate plan at every slight by a family member.
Elders often have money and need care. Little old ladies complain that elder men are looking for a nurse rather than a wife. A younger woman (in my world that means a woman in her fifties) willing to be a nurse can wrap a gruff and opinionated old man around her little finger in a matter of weeks. An elder is allowed to trade his money for care and, if he wants, he can leave everything to the person who brought him comfort in his last days. That is his right. If, however, the motives of the caregiver are selfish and the reward wildly out of proportion to the value of the care given, the recipient of this largess can expect a will contest. In the case where a distant cousin flies in from out of town--and who never made more than $30,000 a year in her life--suddenly gets a million dollars for the care given in the elder's last year, I think the cousin deserves all the agony that a will contest entails.
One of the tried and true methods of defeating an estate plan is to induce the elder to give away his major assets while still alive. That way the will is still good, but all the property is gone. A lot of my litigation involves unwinding gifts so that if the gift was a result of dementia or undue influence the property goes to the heirs rather than the recipient of the gift. In these cases I always hear, "She forced me to accept those gifts."
The "forced me to accept" approach is similar to the "she is strong-willed and opinionated" tactic. The recipient of the gift--often the elder's house--claims that he tried to refuse the gift but the little old lady would not take no for an answer. (But now that she is dead the recipient is, of course, morally obligated to keep the property.) Probate and elder abuse law is structured in a way that creates, in certain circumstances, an obligation to say no to gifts from old people (unless arranged by the old person's lawyer). If you are not strong enough to stand up to old men and women and say no, then don't expect to keep the property. If you are too weak to say no and do expect to keep the gift, then you should get your gift in cash rather than real estate. You will need the cash to pay your lawyer when you are named as the defendant in a financial elder abuse civil suit.
The final unsuccessful approach I want to discuss is the one that can be summed up as, "My opponent is a dirty, rotten, scoundrel." This is approach comes in a variety of flavors and tends to be part of every civil case. Parties like to use this approach. Lawyers put up with it because in the courtroom, as in life, good looking, honest, hardworking, and likeable people do better than ugly, dishonest, lazy and dislikeable people. Judge's have prejudices, and they like to see the benefits of life, including inheritances, go to good people. The problem with this approach is twofold. The first is that inheritance, like sunlight, falls on saints and sinners in equal portion. Parents usually leave their estates to their children no matter how despicable the rest of the world considers those children. Judge's know this and are only willing to let evidence of character, whether good or bad, sway them so much.
The second problem with this approach is that you can only say two bad things about another person without bringing condemnation down upon yourself. If you say three bad things, then you start to look like the scoundrel. Denigrating others is a dangerous tactic that backfires easily. People on God's list of good people spend very little time disparaging other people. If you are spending a lot of your energy doing that, you risk being removed from the list. In the courtroom, if you say three bad things about the person on the other side, the judge is more likely to consider the testimony to be evidence of your poor character than evidence of the other persons. You cannot beat people up and still be the good guy.
Witnesses in will contests are more likely to discredit their own testimony than to have it discredited by others. There are no juries to influence and judges have seen a lot. If the judge senses that a witness is covering up a simmering cauldron and hate for the other side, the judge may well take over the questioning, uncover that cauldron and by doing so let the witness destroy his own credibility.
Monday, September 8, 2014
It is hard to tell the truth. The more stressful the situation, the more difficult it is.
I do probate and elder law litigation in Oregon. One of the things lawyers do in will contests and financial elder abuse cases is take depositions. The lawyers in the case put the witnesses in front of a court reporter, make them swear to tell truth, and then ask what happened. In this way the lawyers find out what the witnesses on the other side of the case will say at trial.
To prepare my client for deposition I give some hints about how to respond to the other lawyer's questions, but most of my emphasis goes into the importance of telling the truth.
Having my client tell the truth is crucial to my case, because a client who gives one untruthful answer out of twenty casts doubt on all twenty. My clients tell me that they will tell the truth. They may even understand the importance of it to the case, but more often than not they are simply incapable of it.
In litigation the lawyers each develop a story. The challenger of the will has a story whereby the will was a result of undue influence. The proponent of the will has a story in which the will truly represents the last wishes of the person who wrote it. The judge will listen to the evidence and either accept one of the stories, or construct from what he hears a story of his own. The witnesses in deposition and trial know what story their lawyer is trying to tell and they want to help. Often, in their zeal to help, witnesses hurt their own cases.
If all the facts supported the same story, nobody would be going to court. Cases are litigated because there is a dispute as to what happened. That means some of the facts point toward the challenger's story and some of them point to the proponent. Witnesses know this and when testifying they filter their answers through the lense of how the answer fits the story their lawyer is trying to tell. When asked a question with a straightforward answer that does not fit the witnesses story, even people who are generally truthful become evasive and defensive. Evasive and defensive witnesses are bad witnesses.
Stories and real life are not the same. When we go to the movies we don't see everything every character does every minute of the day. Facts are indifferent to the stories we tell, so authors and the editors cut out anything that doesn't contribute to the story. A different author or editor would pick out different things and create a different story. In real life heros sometimes do bad things, and villains can be philanthropic. In depositions the witness may well be asked about facts that don't fit the story the witness wants to tell. Nevertheless, it is better for the case if the witness bites the bullet and tells it the way real life presented it. I tell witnesses this all the time, but for some people the story--the narrative--has become real life, and they are unable to say anything that doesn't fit.
Litigants must accept that their lawyer cannot hide the facts that don't support the case. His job is to present the facts in a way that make his client's story more likely than the one presented by the other side. When the litigants attempt to hide facts that don't support their case, they appear from the outside to be unconvinced of the story they are propounding. Secure people accept their imperfections, and secure witnesses accept that there are flaws in the story they are presenting to the court. If the witness is truthful about the weaknesses in his case, his testimony is credible on the facts that support his case. If the witness is untruthful and evase about the flaws in the case, the suspicion is that he is also untruthful and biased about the strengths of his case
It is my job as a lawyer in a will contest or elder financial abuse case to put the facts in context and perspective. My clients want to help me, but they help the most by providing me with the most accurate information possible. The same client who complains about all the work involved in obtaining and compiling medical or financial records, is often the first one to be manipulative of the few pieces of factual evidence I have to work with. In doing so this client--the one who has stood in the way of getting the information I need--devalues the little bit of factual information I have.
In a will contest the fight is always over someone else's money. The litigants didn't earn it and haven't lost it. The best witness is the one who recognizes that he or she has no moral right to the money and is willing to simply lay out the bare facts so that a judge can decided who gets it. The moment the witness decides to help by shading his testimony, he reduces the chance that the judge will decide in his favor.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
People call me all the time asking me to write a power of attorney for the caller's mother, father, grandfather or uncle. The call usually goes something like this:
Clara Client: "My mother has Alzheimers and the bank says I need a power of attorney so I can take care of her money. If you write one up, I could pick it up this afternoon."
Me: "Describe her condition."
Carla Client: "She is forgetful. She leaves the stove on and can't operate the remote on the television any more. She needs someone to take care of her money and everyone says I need a power of attorney.
Me: "If she were presented with a power of attorney, would she be able to read and understand it."
Carla Client: "No. Well, maybe if it was in the morning, but she want's me to take care of her money."
Me: "Could she come in and see me?"
Clara Client: "She doesn't like to go out anymore, she wants me to take care of if.
Let's get this clear. I am never going to write this power of attorney, and a lawyer who will do it is crazy.
I write estate planning and related documents for clients of mine. If Clara Client's mother came in and wanted to name Clara as her agent in a power of attorney--and I thought that the mother had the capacity to understand the document--I would be pleased to write it. I do this sort of thing all the time. However, when a client comes in--the client being the person who is in my office--and wants me to write estate planning documents for someone else, I get scared.
Estate planning documents are not like leases and sales contracts. If you wanted to sell or lease a building to a third party, a lawyer might write the lease for you. You could present it to the proposed tenant, and the tenant would understand that the lawyer who wrote the document was working for you. The tenant might or might not get a lawyer to review the document, but the tenant would not think your lawyer was looking out for him. In estate planning it is different. When Clara client takes that power of attorney to her mother, her mother might reasonably believe that I wrote the document with the mother's best interests in mind, and that I was watching out for her. According to the rules that govern lawyers, if a person reasonably believes that I am watching out for her then that person is my client. So in the case of Clara, Clara's mother becomes my client even if I have never met her. Now I have two clients, Clara, who is paying me and Clara's mother, who has never met me. This has big implications and is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night.
To me, a client who asks me to write a power of attorney for a third party is little different from a client asking me to write a will for a third party. I have had that happen. "My grandfather wants to leave everything to me. You write up a will saying that, and I will get him to sign it." Very few people have a hard time seeing what is wrong with this, but quite a few people see no problem with, "My grandfather wants to put all of his money under my control. You write that up and I will have him sign it."
I simply cannot be associated with creating a will or a power of attorney for a person who I have never met, and probably doesn't have the cognitive capacity to understand the document.
What might go wrong? In many cases, nothing goes wrong. I write the power of attorney for Clara Client. She uses is honestly and wisely and everybody is happy. Great. It all worked out and I made a hundred bucks off of my power of attorney form.
Ah, but what about the other cases. Clara Client takes the form I wrote, gets her mother to sign it, and uses the form to steal every cent her mother had. When the rest of the family figures this out, Clara is long gone and they go looking for someone to sue. Who do they look to? That's right, me. I am the guy who wrote a power of attorney, the tool by which the theft occurred, and after I wrote it, I gave it to the thief. Furthermore, I knew, while writing it, that Clara's mother probably didn't have the capacity to understand the document. I am on the hook for everything Clara took.
Here is the deal. If you want to stick a power of attorney in front of your demented relative and hope that it all works out, go down to Office Depot or download one on the internet. If the power of attorney is thereafter used properly--that is all expenditures by the agent are recorded, accounted for, and made for the benefit of the principal--everybody will be fine and you will have saved a hundred bucks. If the power of attorney is used improperly--by handing out grandma's money to relatives--when Adult Protective Services or the police come looking for Clara, I will be sleeping sound and secure in the knowledge that I had nothing to do with it. That's the way I want it.
Doing it this way even has some advantages for Clara. Let's assume Clara gets a power of attorney from Legal Zoom on the internet and leaves me out of it. Later it turns out that the power of attorney is insufficient protection and Clara needs to establish a guardianship or a conservatorship. I can take that case because I have never acted as attorney for her mother. Had I written the power of attorney, it is highly likely that Clara's mother would believe that I was protecting her legal interests. As I described above, that makes her my client, and once she becomes my client I am disqualified from ever bringing a guardianship or conservatorship case against her. Clara won't be getting a guardianship from Legal Zoom and she may be thankful that I am available for the job.