The Tale Of The Good-Hearted, Misinformed “Friend” As A Substitute For Competent Legal Advice
The “friend” as a substitute for competent legal advice. Always makes me shake my head. 🙂
“I have a friend. His mom passed away and he said he didn’t have to do any of this stuff.”
That is a common statement that I hear from frustrated potential clients who call me seeking advice after they have chased dead ends trying to figure it out on their own through Google research, getting stonewalled at the bank, getting told by title company and escrow company that they need “Letters Testamentary” from the Court for the sale of mom’s house that is supposed to close next week. Maybe they have made a trip or two to the local Courthouse in an effort to get things done only to be turned away by the Clerk or the Judge for not following proper procedures.
I have listened to their story figured out their legal puzzle, given them the solution to their puzzle and they still “can’t believe it.”
The all-knowing “friend” is the dearth of competent legal advice. I have to undo what the friend told you, then inform you of why the “friend” is not accurate. That causes a little bit of internal conflict in you because you ask yourself “Why would my friend steer me wrong? I have known my friend for a long time and I just met you. So, why should I believe you? Everyone knows that attorneys are out just to screw you over.”
Well the answer is simple. Your friend means well. They don’t mean to give you bad legal advice. They just don’t know what the heck they are talking about.
We all have friends who fit in this category who freely offer their opinions on subjects that they know nothing about. For some odd reason, legal advice is a popular subject where people who have no clue what they are talking about will freely offer their opinion to anyone who will listen.
If you needed a knee replaced, would you rely on the same “friend” to do the surgery? Of course, not (unless, of course, your friend is a great orthopedic surgeon). Well, why not? Is it because having knees that work is important to your quality of day to day life? It is because replacing the knee involves cutting your body open, taking something that you have had all your life (your knee) out and putting something new in its place is a scary concept that we don’t like to think about it? Is it because a lot of things could go wrong during that process including the possibility of dying? Yes. Those are all valid reasons why you don’t rely on your friend to perform your knee replacement surgery. That’s smart. Makes logical sense to most humans.
Further, you probably would not take the “do it yourself” approach to your own knee replacement surgery.
You would select a doctor to perform your knee replacement surgery. You would not select just any doctor either. Not a family practice doctor. Not an internist. Not an eye surgeon. Not your chiropractor. You would choose a great orthopedic surgeon for the job.
My oldest son and his wife are both wonderful physical therapy doctors. They graduated first and second respectively in their class. Very smart, kind and compassionate people. There is no way in hell that I would let my gifted Doctor of Physical Therapy son operate on my knee. Why? Because that is not his area of expertise. Does that make my son less smart? No. Does that make my son a bad doctor? No. The answer is that he is just not trained and experienced in knee replacement surgery. After the knee is replaced, sure, you go to the doctor of physical therapy to assist you with the healing process to get the new knee working right again. That is what they are trained to do and a physical therapist is necessary in the rehabilitation process to have the highest chance of a successful recovery.
If you needed to fly to a different state in order to get their quickly, would you rely on your “friend” to pilot the plane? Of course not (unless, of course, your friend is a licensed pilot for the type of aircraft you will be flying AND has a plane). Well, why not? Is it because controlling an aircraft on take-off and landing at a high rate of speed is actually harder than it looks? Is it that navigating a powerful machine made of pressurized aluminum six miles up in the air with various strong wind speeds and weather conditions can blow you far off course? Is it because a lot of things could go wrong during that process including the possibility of dying? Yes. Those are all valid reasons why you don’t rely on your friend to fly the aircraft. That’s smart. Makes logical sense to most humans.
You don’t hire just any pilot either. You hire a company with experienced pilots and proven safety record who maintain their aircraft to fly you where you need to go so that you have a higher probability of landing safely where you needed to go.
That leads us to the obvious question: Why would you ever risk relying on your “friend” for solid experienced legal advice on how to handle your most valuable assets: You, your family and your real estate, for when you actually die? Why would you ever rely on your “friend” for legal advice for what types of financial powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney, HIPAA Health care releases, personal guardianship designations, Wills, Trusts, and Living Wills that are necessary in case you get sick and need help managing your assets or health care decisions? Why would you ever attempt to “do it yourself” by downloading forms off the internet? The risks of doing it all wrong are far too high.
What is the most remarkable thing to me is this: Your real estate is typically your most expensive single asset and your family is usually very important to you. Why in the World would someone take a chance of preparing deficient legal documents that do not accomplish your goals when it comes to legally dealing with your health care decision makers and the distribution of your assets?
Over the years, I have seen so many “fill in the blank” Wills and Powers of Attorney downloaded off the internet or from an office supply store that have been improperly completed and therefore invalidated. A high percentage of the time, the attempted legal documents are not worth the paper they are written on. Typically, the Will does not comply with the legal requirements by missing witness signatures, or notarization, or clear drafting, or proper identification of family members and on and on and on. So, what happens from a legal standpoint is that the Will is invalid, unenforceable and thrown out by the Court.
Therefore, although the deceased meant well, their family is stuck with your state’s Intestate Statute and a lengthy probate court proceeding and unintended beneficiaries receiving assets from the estate based on the legislature’s decision instead of the deceased person’s intentions.
Crazy. But, true. I see it all the time. Time after time. Year after year. It just makes me shake my head. I feel for the frustrated person sitting across the desk from me trying to take care of matters for the deceased. I feel for the family members who are unwittingly being put through the process. And, a lot of the time, unintended consequences occurring.
There are lots of things in life where you can take a shot at “doing it yourself” and the consequences of a failed attempted are not so dramatic. You can paint a room in your house. If you mess it up, no big deal, you can always re-paint it. You can grow your own food instead of going to the grocery store. It might be a while before you can eat, but you can do it. You can research chemistry formulas on the internet to create fuel for your car. Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t. But, you can do it nonetheless.
However, preparation of your own “do it yourself” estate planning documents is not one of those things in life you should take a shot at doing it yourself. The reason is that you don’t get a second chance at getting it right.
There are multiple answers to the question why some people do not hire an experienced estate planning lawyer to prepare their estate planning documents. Sadly, none of the answers are a real reason not to hire an experienced estate planning attorney.
Answer #1: People Do Not Like Contemplating Their Own Mortality.
Men are the worst. We are bullet-proof. We plan on living forever. So far. So good. Credit to comedian Stephen Wright.
We are human. We love life and being surrounded by those we love. Personally, I try to cherish every day. Sometimes I fail, but, I try. It has been said many times by many people, so I don’t know who to formally give credit of the quote to, but, I heard former coach Mike Ditka say it once, so I will give him credit since I know I didn’t write it. Here it is: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why they call it the present.”
Beautiful words for sure.
Here is the reality. We all pass away. Therefore, everyone who owns real estate needs to plan for their inevitable passing. The only mystery to the calculation is when. You can never get your estate planning documents done too early. You can only wait until it is too late.
Everyone who owns real estate need solid estate planning documents in place to accomplish your intended goals and make things easier for your family in their time of need. It’s that simple and it’s one of the most important and responsible things we can do for our family and friends. We don’t like to think about it. Build a bridge and get over it. The sooner you get your estate planning documents done, the sooner you can get it off your mind and enjoy every day more knowing that you have everything taken care of for your family.
With very few exceptions when people leave my office after signing say the exact same thing: “I am so happy to get this done. It’s been on my mind for a long time. I’ve known I should get this done. I don’t know why I put it off for so long. It was easier than I thought.” Competent legal advice makes a big difference.
Answer #2: People “Think” They Don’t Like Lawyers.
Lawyer jokes. Twisted plot lawyer television shows. Fantastical lawyer novels with amazing facts and strange devious characters. I know a guy who has a friend and that guy got screwed over by his lawyer. And so on.
Let me you in on a little secret: Lawyers are people too and our everyday work life is nothing like television. Most of my day is spent talking to people about their families, their goals and concerns.
Most lawyers love helping people. I love helping people. Most of my friends are lawyers and they also love helping people. Most of my day is spent with ordinary working or retired people just like you who have families and real estate. The people I meet with want to make sure they if something happens to them (and it will), that they have everything in place to make things easier for their family. I love helping people have peace of mind. My clients appreciate it.
When my kids were young, I coached our youngest son on a little league baseball team and middle school basketball teams. I took my daughter to dance class and attended performances. We traveled to soccer tournaments. We helped our kids with their homework and attended school assemblies. Our kids got in trouble at school. Over time, they broke various bones doing dumb stuff on scooters or bicycles or other sports. We go to the grocery store. We have friends come over for dinner. We are your neighbors down the street. Lawyers are people just like you.
Here is another secret: Most people do not know a lawyer.
Growing up, I never met a lawyer. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer but I didn’t know any. I wanted to be a lawyer so I could help people and that sounded like a good way to accomplish my goal. My guidance: Country singing legend Waylon Jennings and the song Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys. The famous line from the song is “Let them be doctors and lawyers and such.” Growing up in rural New Mexico, I knew real cowboys. So, I knew I didn’t want to do that. Not that there is anything wrong with the cowboy profession. We need them for sure. It just wasn’t my passion.
I’m not a big fan of chemistry. So, that left being a lawyer as the only other viable option. Plus, I liked figuring out puzzles and arguing over different points of view. As it turns out, the ability to figure out puzzles is a real asset in being an estate planning lawyer. Liking to argue different points of view turns out just to be a bonus talent.
I never met a lawyer until I got to law school. Most of you don’t know a lawyer. If you do, it was probably due to a bad life event experience such as a divorce. It seems that rarely does anyone like their divorce lawyer in end. Due to human nature, people tend to mix-up and blend the bad life event, i.e. the divorce from their spouse, with the person who helped them through the bad experience, i.e. their lawyer, and think of it all as one big bad overall experience.
However, my experience has shown that most people love their estate planning lawyer. People really appreciate what I do because it gives them peace of mind knowing that they have the legal documents in place when the time arrives that they or their family need help. Old clients call me just to say “hello” and check in. I get thank you letters, paintings, sketches and holiday cards in appreciation. That stuff means a lot to me because it makes me feel good about what I do for people.
Competent Legal Advice is important to everyone.
I’m not saying that all lawyers are great people. Obviously, some are not. But that is true of any profession. There are good lawyers and there are bad lawyers. There are good cops and bad cops. There are good firemen and bad firemen. There are good bus drivers and there are bad drivers. There are good physicians and bad physicians. Having a degree or experience in any genre doesn’t necessarily make you a good or bad at what you do for a living.
My point is that lawyers are people too. Don’t let an ill-conceived misconception of lawyers in general or your “friend’s” bad experience (be it real or not real) prevent you from seeking competent legal advice when it comes to you getting your estate planning done to protect you and your family. Research lawyers. Read client reviews. Make an informed decision who you hire to prepare your estate plan. Heck, not everyone I have met over the past 31 years of practice necessarily “likes” me or hires me to prepare their estate planning documents. I wish everyone liked me and my approach to estate planning. I wish everyone hired me to prepare their estate planning documents. The reality is that sometimes it is just not a good “fit” either on my part or on my potential client’s part. I don’t take on every case that comes in the door and not everyone I talk to hires me.
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