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Do-It-Yourself Estate Law

Dentist in a Box Estate Law II.jpg

Acting as your own lawyer (even if you are not a lawyer) in an estate administration or trust contest has all of the advantages of roofing your own two-story house or capping your own teeth. You don't have to pay a professional, and pay no mind to the danger of falling off a roof or losing your teeth. The same principle applies to estate law.

We represent people in uncontested and contested estate matters. We have lots of stories. Given attorney-client privilege and the necessity of ensuring client (or even prospective) client privacy, we'll intone Dragnet's opening narration: "Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." OK - not only the names, we'll have to also change the dates, the circumstances and a whole host of other hypotheticals so that the story that you finally hear is a mixture of fact and fiction coupled with tongue-in-cheek realism.

***

Mike Hackard: This is the County of Sacramento, California. I work here ... I'm an attorney.

It was a Thursday, May 21st. It was warm and mild in Sacramento. We were working estates...

Our Attorney: The story you are about to hear about has some element of truth to it but the facts have been changed so much that the identification of anyone beyond the attorneys is virtually indecipherable.

Mike delivers the following speech about the trials and tribulations of being an estate litigation attorney to a newly-minted lawyer.

"It's awkward being an attorney at times. A prospective client calls in. With the caller's consent we put the call on our speakerphone. Our attorney sits with a notebook in hand and the caller with a weather-worn voice identifies herself with great authority as Pam Hamilton. You can hear a pin drop."

Mike: How may I help you, Miss Hamilton?

Pam: You probably can't. I'm planning on doing the legwork on this estate and if we need a lawyer later on we might pay him to review some papers. My sisters and me are the only children of our mother who just died. Our dad died over twenty years ago. We like pumpkin pie and banana bread at Thanksgiving. When we were kids, we used to fight the other kids in the neighborhood until the cops broke up our gang, and since then we joined a choir and ...

Mike: Just the facts, Pam.

Pam: Oh, okay, so our mom died without a will, but I think that my sister hid it in a storage box out behind the barn or maybe even at a locker in the Greyhound station. I think that we can clear this up all by ourselves without having any lawyer interfere or take money from us.

Mike: What is it you plan to do, Pam?

Pam: Split the estate even Steven, except I'm gonna keep the cash I found under mom's mattress and not tell my sisters about it."

Mike: Well, Pam, that is not fair or legal.

Pam: Fair is fair - I've been payin' for Fourth of July fireworks for over fifteen years at our mom's house and not once did my sister offer to pay for part of the Piccolo Petes.

Mike: How much cash, Pam?

Pam: Why?

Mike: Well, it's something that you ought to split with your sisters.

Pam: Not more than $40,000 and a couple dozen Krugerrands.

Mike: OK - let's talk about the house or any other real property.

Pam: My Mom lived in a farmhouse in Pinole that she inherited from her cousin Louise, and Louise owned it with her husband Mortimer.

Mike: How is the house titled?

Pam: It's in my Mom's name and Mortimer's.

Mike: When did Mortimer die?

Pam: 1967.

Mike: So you are going to clear title to your mom's house (and Mortimer's)?

Pam: What's clear title?

***

We depart from our dialogue to point out that Pam doesn't have a clue as to how to clear title, provide a fair distribution of assets, or in most respects meet the requirements of California law. There are plenty of Pams who at this point discover it wise to hire an attorney.

Many of us are inclined toward do-it-yourself solutions in the belief we'll save time and money. Yet just as you wouldn't think of performing dental surgery on yourself, it's best to trust an accomplished veteran for your needs in estate law. Pitfalls and complexities await the unwary, and there's a better way to minimize risk than attempting to enact Estate Law for Dummies. No matter the problem, you deserve the best: choose an attorney who shows professional excellence, compassion, and is devoted to protecting client interests.

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