Monday, May 31, 2010

So and So Died, and....

Every case has a story, a set of facts that answer the question "What is this about?"

That is always the first question. The first question I ask a new client. It's the first question I address when telling an associate or paralegal or secretary about a new matter, and the first question judges ask whenever you appear in court.

In the last few years I've been doing a lot of probate and estate administration cases. I always had a few of these in general practice, and was surprised how much I liked them. Sometimes when I tell people I do "probate and estate administration" they say "Oh, estate planning?", the cases I work on are usually cases where they did not do any fancy estate planning, and then....they died. This turns out to be most cases where people die, and since none of us is getting out of here alive (something I have said to clients many times, only to have them look at me like I had said something either incredibly stupid, or quite profound), it seemed like it might be a law practice growth field.

It is also sufficiently complicated that every lawyer is not trying to get into it (I like to think it's because of the complexity, but perhaps other lawyers find it distasteful). I find it challenging and not distasteful. I even find there is something satisfying in bringing a successful completion to someone's affairs. So, I now focus most of my attention on these cases, and have set up a probate website Now I have an office full of cases where the answer to the question "What is this about?" is always the same....

"So-and-so died, and......"

Thus begins a probate and estate administration case. In New York, probate means there is a will, estate administration means there isn't. Either way the dead person's assets are going SOMEWHERE. Ah, but where, and how, and who is involved, and what's going to happen?

Although the stories all start out the same (somebody died and...), after that it is never the same. Sometimes all falls into place, everybody is lovey-dovey, and it's just a matter of knowing what papers to file. Sometimes these cases are dysfunctional family feuds, with acrimony and bitterness that would humble the worst matrimonial case. If there are anger, jealousy, and other toxic emotions involved in a contested matrimonial, contested estate matters have that and more. It is not uncommon to find that not only is there anger, jealousy and other toxic emotions existing among numerous family members(generally the children of an older person), but that none of it has been talked about, often for 30 years or more. Then, the dreaded unspoken about thing happens (so and so dies), and now all the things that have not been talked about MUST be talked about. It would be easy to say that these cases all come down to money, and many of them do, but it is also money infused with deep-seated emotional and psychological issues.

I stopped doing matrimonial cases many years ago, precisely because I did not like being involved in such bitterness. One of the things I hated about matrimonial cases was, they never ended. The parties were always coming back for more. Estates are not like that. Even when they are crazy and bitter, at some point they end, the dead remain dead, and the living move on. And no matter what they did during the case, as they fought over their relatives money, none of them are getting out of here alive either.

Perhaps I love the ultimate justice of this area of practice.

Tomorrow - surprising answers to the question "Who should really make a Will?"