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 past few years I’ve been focusing on probate and estate administration cases. I always had a few 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?” Well….no, the cases I have are usually the 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 most people do need professional assistance to get things done and completed efficiently.
It is also sufficiently complicated that not every lawyer is 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 something satisfying in bringing a successful conclusion to someone’s affairs.
In these situations, the initial answer to “What is this about?” is always the same….
“So-and-so died, and then……”
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 then …), after that it is never the same. Sometimes it 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 contested matrimonials involve anger, jealousy, and other toxic emotions, contested estates have that and more. It is not uncommon to find a range of emotional issues among numerous family members (generally the children of an older person), where 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 these cases all come down to money, and many 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 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.
Sometimes people actually realize this during the case and make peace. Sometimes not, but it’s nice when that happens.