Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lawyer Jokes Lived Out

Because my father didn't have a will, we had to hire a lawyer to help administer his estate and file papers in Probate Court.

He seems nice enough.  I didn't have any negative feelings about him when we met with him.

One of the things about which he spoke to us concerned my dad's bills.  He instructed us that we were not to pay them.  He would put a legal notice in the paper and creditors would have 3 months to file a claim for payment if anything was owed to them.  After the 3 months were up, they were out of luck and not entitled to payment.

It seemed clear enough.

I wasn't too worried about any of this because my dad had no real debt. He had a few credit cards, each with less than $500 dollars on them. He used them for gas, buying auto parts online, and purchases at department stores. He would pay the balance off each month.  I had been through all his papers and knew there weren't any unknown creditors out there.  Plus, my dad had already disclosed as much to me in conversations about his upcoming retirement and financial plans.

This issue has created a slight disagreement between my brother and I.  His view was that if the credit card companies didn't contact us in those three months, too bad for them.  My view was that dad had purchased, received, and used goods that were now in our possession.  It would be wrong to knowingly not pay them.

The point is moot if the credit card companies respond to the public notice.

Where all of this gets interesting is in further conversations I have had with the lawyer.  In clarifying various things, this subject came up again and I listened as the lawyer described, unprompted, multiple ways we could get out of paying these bills.  He would wait until the third month of notice before sending specific notice to the creditors we knew about.  Specific notice is legally required.  When he sent that notice, he would send it to the address listed for payment, which is not the same as the address that companies use to handle all other information regarding an account.  By the time the notice got to the right person, they might have lost a couple of weeks time to process a claim, and might not even make one in time.  

Presto Change-o...not required to pay.

I sat silently while I listened to not only this, but to further plotting of ways to get out of paying them if they actually filed a claim.  The lawyer said he could object to the claim, and unless the amount owed to them was significant, the creditors would likely write off the amount, wanting to avoid spending money on legal proceedings in order to obtain a few hundred dollars.  It would a wash to them, financially.

After this long, unasked-for speech, the lawyer added, "Not that we would try to cheat anyone out of what they are owed."

"Really?  Because that's exactly what it seems like you just spent 5 minutes describing," I thought.

It made me extremely uncomfortable and further reminded me that not everything "legal" is morally right.

I didn't remember until I was off the phone, and thinking all this through, that in Florida an attorney's fees are directly tied to the value of the estate they are probating.  It's a specific percentage, after all the debts of the estate have been paid.

The lower the value of the estate, the lower the value of the percentage.

Can we say conflict of interest?

The people in charge of notifying creditors are people who stand to profit if the creditors fail to act in a timely manner. And, apparently, it is a common practice to try and make them fail.

Now, I have to decide if I am going to simply ignore my brother and lawyer and pay the bills I know about.  I want to.  I feel it's the right thing to do.

In broader terms, I think about our country's current economic crisis and how lawyers and bankers finagle rules to get what they want and create huge messes.  I think about people who are irresponsible, take out loans they can't afford, and wind up declaring bankruptcy, or going into foreclosure....creating problems for their banks and neighborhoods. Everyone passes the buck from one place to another and then wonders how we got here.

It makes me upset. It makes me frustrated that our society has a gaping void in the "personal integrity" department and it continues to get larger.


enough of my rant against the establishment, society and people in general.


Ginger said...

I'm with you on this. I would pay the credit card bills and cancel the accounts. It's the right thing to do.

My condolences on the loss of your father.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is a line between asserting your rights and manipulating the system. I don't know where to draw it, but this guy seems way over it.

Ruth said...

This lawyer thinks you are doing the right thing..........

I'm so sorry you have to deal with all of this.