By Tim Barkley. November 2021.
It was a bright and airy day a quarter-century ago when a mild-mannered young reporter for the Mt. Airy News purchased the paper from her employer. A reporter was transmogrified into an editor, a newspaper’s name was changed, and the Messenger was born.
On the other side of town, in a dimly-lit rented flat, an intrepid young attorney sought the answers to life’s persistent questions as he struggled to provide a living for a growing family. The attorney met the editor, and a columnist was born.
Like good news reporting and good editorial style, good legal advice is never out of style. The increasing availability of information on the Internet doesn’t obviate the need for wisdom … knowing how to apply that information for the benefit of those who need it. Simply knowing that something called “probate” might be avoided and maybe should be avoided doesn’t necessarily reveal the best way for a particular family to avoid it.
Yesterday’s news is good as a reference point, but maybe not all that one needs to make today’s decisions. Just so, yesterday’s advice and legal documents might be useful and effective today, or might not. If the law has changed, or your family has changed, or the commonly received cultural wisdom has changed as has happened with regard to end-of-life decisionmaking, then yesterday’s advice and yesteryear’s documents need to be updated.
Yet those who forget yesterday’s news often make bad decisions today. To paraphrase a favorite author, those who overlook the lessons of history tend to fall flat on their face in them. Some things have been tried, and have failed. Wisdom is gained through experience, and experience sometimes through trying and failing – but better, by seeing what others have failed in trying, and avoiding that.
And sometimes the cutting edge and the bleeding edge are too close together. Trying to anticipate tomorrow’s news can be expensive. As one law professor of this writer commented, “don’t put your client’s name on the test case.” Or, at least, make sure the client knows they are in uncharted territory and that outcomes are unknown or unknowable, and maybe expensive.
Just as good news reporting can help us sort out information from misinformation so we can make better decisions, from which route to take to work to who should receive our vote on Election Day, good legal advice can help us sort out fact from fiction. This author often has the opportunity to disabuse folks of pernicious myths:
- “if I don’t have a will, the State takes it all” (nothing could be further from the truth – but you ARE stuck with what the government thinks is best for your family, and that might not be what you think is best);
- “if I have a will, that avoids probate” (no, wills CONTROL the probate process and its outcome; they don’t avoid it);
- “I need a living trust to avoid income tax” (living trusts don’t avoid any tax, income or estate, by themselves);
- “I need a living trust to avoid probate” (maybe – or maybe there are more efficient and cheaper ways to avoid probate);
- “if my Mom goes into a nursing home, ‘they’ come and take everything” (no, Mom just has a huge bill for room and board and medical care, and her assets are spent on that care until they are exhausted);
- “I need to put a child on my house/bank account/car so that there’s somebody there in case something happens to me” (a child who is a joint owner owns your house/account/car, and their creditors can take it from you).
That “something” that “might” happen to us inevitably will happen. It’s not “if” something happens; it’s “when” something happens, and what “thing” happens. “Something” is going to “happen” to all of us. Over a quarter-century ago, this author started advising folks about how to prepare, and writing about that in these pages. These pages are folding, but the advising will continue. I hope to see you.
Becky, it’s been an honor. Thank you. Enjoy your retirement. And may the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Attorney Tim Barkley
The Tim Barkley Law Offices
One Park Avenue
P.O. Box 1136
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