Thursday, August 15, 2013

"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. The first question I address when telling an associate or paralegal 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 have are generally ones where they didn't 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, it seems like a recession proof, 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. There is actually something satisfying in bringing a successful completion to someone's affairs. So, I now focus most of my attention on these cases, and have a website devoted to it.   I now have an office full of cases where the beginning of 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 a range of toxic emotions among numerous family members (generally the children of an older person), but that none of it has been openly discussed for many years. Then, the dreaded unspoken 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.