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In my law practice, I focus on estate planning, which includes Wills, trusts and probate; on LGBT issues such as same-sex marriage, registered domestic partnerships, and dissolutions of those; and on bankruptcies.
I hear from and meet prospective clients from every walk of life, and each one has a unique legal problem. It is rarely just a simple matter of drafting a Will, a pre-martial/domestic partnership agreement or helping someone file bankruptcy. I often need to see far beyond the initial request for help.
How will the legal issues affect a client’s life? If only it were possible to see the future.
There are several things that clients can do to make their legal problems clearer, and good solutions more likely. Like a doctor, I can only treat an issue if you tell me the symptoms and give me all the facts.
Unfortunately, I find that some clients are reluctant to do this, and, intentionally or not, leave out critical information. Sometimes I have to decline cases because I can’t possibly give proper advice if I don’t know the whole story.
Once in awhile, I have to reject handling a case because of too much information. A gay couple contacted me about doing their estate planning, we met together, and all seemed fine until one partner called me a few days later, wanting to meet with me separately.
He had a few “things” he wanted me to know about, but didn’t want to discuss them with his partner present. Now that is a major red flag. When an attorney represents a couple, he represents them equally and together, not as individuals with competing interests. I had to withdraw from representing both of them because at least one of them was not being honest with the other.
In other cases, I find some prospective clients make assumptions about what is “legal.”
They think they know what I can or should do to help resolve their situation. Or they have friends who tell them to “get an attorney and sue them,” or “you don’t have to put up with that – tell your attorney to take care of it.” To be very honest, while I appreciate an educated consumer, I nearly always refuse those cases where the prospective clients (or their friends) think they know more about the law than I do!
Sometimes the complex family situations or emotional stress of clients make it impossible for an attorney to resolve problems. Here is a case I’ve run across recently that illustrates how attorneys can’t be all-knowing or all-seeing:
Real Tragedy – An older couple with medical problems lost their jobs, and the wife’s small income from part-time work helped them hang on by a thread. But debts from medical providers and credit cards they used to keep them afloat kept growing. There was no chance of ever paying them off. They were frantic with worry, but they were convinced that bankruptcy would ruin them further. That they would have no home, no car, that even their furniture would be taken from them.
The attorney they consulted helped them see that bankruptcy was their only chance to get out from under their burden of debts. They took his advice and filed, but continued to fear that they would somehow be stripped of their personal possessions. Eventually, their debts were discharged by the bankruptcy court, without taking their possessions, and their case was closed.
But their outlook was still grim. With only a part-time job between them, they did not have enough money to cover basic food and housing, even with all of their other debts gone. News headlines reported their suicides, a short time later – a shock and terrible testimony to the state of our economy.
Bankruptcy’s chance at a fresh start does not work when there is no income sufficient to live on.
Would a crystal ball have helped their attorney handle the situation differently? Perhaps – if the depth of this couple’s despair had been recognized, they might have been referred to someone who could have helped them… but there is no way to know for sure.
Attorney’s Note: Share your deepest concerns with your attorney. Although he or she is clearly not a therapist or a social worker, understanding the whole picture and knowing how strongly you feel about critical issues might make a difference in how your case is handled, and help mobilize efforts to help you with the larger issues in your life.
This article is part of an ongoing series of articles pertaining to legal issues relevant to the LGBT community, and is intended for general information purposes only – not legal advice. Christopher Heritage is an attorney in Palm Springs, and San Diego, CA, who focuses on LGBT estate planning, domestic partnerships, same-sex marriage, probate, trust administration, and bankruptcy. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be contacted at 760.325.2020, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org