Monday, January 30, 2012

"Downton Abbey" and the Need for Estate Planning

It seems like my entire family has become obsessed with PBS' Downton Abbey and have re-arranged their Sunday nights so that they don't miss an episode.  When I watched the first episode, I was subjected to repeated questions about the terminology regarding the future of the estate after the current Lord dies.  Of course, as it is set in the early 1900's in England, the terminology is a bit dated for today's purposes.  However, the underlying issues surrounding the future of the estate are ones that are faced by many people today, although most of us don't have to wear the fancy outfits on a daily basis.

Specifically, the show revolves around who will inherit the estate when the current Lord dies.  After the death of the presumptive heir (I'm not spoiling much, it happens in the first episode), the family is forced to examine whether the estate will be passed along to the Lord's eldest daughter or to the next of kin, who is unknown at the time.

Luckily for us in 2012, our intestacy and estate laws are not nearly as arcane and a random cousin who no one has ever met is unlikely to show up and claim your estate.  However, the show does serve as a great reminder that as the calendar turns to 2012, the Premiership clubs enter the FA Cup and it's a good time to review your estate planning documents and make sure they are up to date and really reflect what your plans are for your estate after you pass.

This is especially true if 2011 was a year of big changes as it was for many people in my life.  Maybe you had a child, bought a home or, if you're really lucky, hit the lottery.  Regardless, you should be checking your will and other documents to be sure they are accurate. 

Some will design a will that lasts for the next 30 years and doesn't need to be revised, but it should still be considered at least once a year.  For others, life is constantly changing and you want to make sure your documents are up to date and accurate so that the cousin you've never met doesn't ride in on the (hopefully proverbial but possibly literal) white horse and inherit your assets.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Preparing For Trial

I'm just winding down a week that apexed on Wednesday with what was supposed to be the continuation of a trial where I was in the middle of my cross-examination.  Even with a trial that started back in October, it was amazing to see the various levels of preparation for the attorneys involved in the case when we appeared for the trial.

While it seems obvious to me, apparently not everyone works with their clients to have them at the height of their preparedness when a trial comes along.  Over the years I have met many attorneys who waited until the last minute to prepare their clients and find a major hole in their case on the eve of trial, with little or no time to correct it.  One of my personal favorites was the attorney who was intending on calling an accountant to testify, only to find out the day before the trial that the accountant was, in fact, no longer a licensed accountant and when the indignant attorney asked why he had not told him this up front, the accountant simply said, "because you never asked me."

For this particular trial, one of the attorneys involved is also a solo practitioner, but one who appears over-extended with all of her cases and unable to spend the appropriate amount of time on each case, or maybe it was just on the case we had together.  For months, letters and requests for documents went ignored and even attempts to get her on the telephone went unanswered.  She showed up for court with documents that she claimed were faxed to me at 2:15 a.m. that morning, only to find that at such a late hour, she must have faxed them to the wrong fax number.  I still wonder what the nursing home who received the documents must have been thinking when they received them in the middle of the night.

With paper files falling out of her briefcase and no real hold on the case or the client, one side of the courtroom looked almost comical.  On the other side, I sat with my client and our exhibits for cross-examination and our computers (my iPad, his netbook) ready to proceed.  Further down was another attorney assigned to the case and his tablet managing his files as well.

So just as we were prepared to proceed, the Court finally issued its decisions on motions that had been undecided for months, including all the requests for documents that were outstanding.  Before the Court even finished its decisions, the other attorney announced that her client was withdrawing her case and just like that, another litigation was concluded.

It's always "Murphy's Law" when you have a trial: when you are prepared, the case either settles or resolves itself some way.  When you aren't prepared, it always goes forward with a trial.