Author Archive

Have Some Tricky Questions? We’ll Treat You to Some Answers.

October 31st, 2011 1 comment

Lately, we’ve been flooded with mail from readers with legal problems and questions. I thought it would be appropriate to use the Kiley Blog to post some of the better ones.


A desperate housewife posed question about divorce law:

Dear Blogger,

My husband doesn’t seem to understand me and won’t communicate. I try to engage him in conversation but he mostly just grunts in response. I try to put the spark back in our marriage but he only says, “Fire . . . bad.” He’s abusive, but usually focuses his anger on local villagers carrying pitchforks. Sometimes, I think he’s a real monster. Do I have grounds for divorce?


The Bride of Frankenstein

Dear Bride,

You’re in luck. On October 13, 2010, the New York State legislature passed a no-fault divorce statute. You can now bring an irretrievable-breakdown divorce action under D.R.L. §170(7). Good luck finding a process server.


 A merchant wrote a question about the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C):

Dear Blogger,

I wanted to order a supply of straight edge razors, but my office manager accidentally ordered a pallet of double blade Gillette Venus razors. They’re so safe. You can’t even nick someone with one. Do I have to take delivery of them?


The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Dear Barber,

§ 2-507 of the UCC regards Effect of Seller’s Tender; Delivery on Condition. Sub-section

(1) provides that “tender of delivery is a condition to the buyer’s duty to accept the goods and, unless otherwise agreed, to his duty to pay for them.” If I were you, I’d keep them, break them in half and sell them to the old lady at the end of the street who’ll stick them in apples and give them to trick-or-treaters.


Another reader asked a question about criminal law:

Dear Blogger,

I’ve been a very bad boy and committed mass murder. Well, to be truthful, I’ve committed several mass murders. You see, it’s a sequel thing and the movie-going public can’t seem to get enough. Now, I’m concerned that I may be caught and prosecuted. I’ve got two questions. First, I’ve got a contract for two more pictures. Can my director be convicted for aiding and abetting me? Second, what’s the difference between consecutive and concurrent sentencing.


Freddy (Last name withheld upon request)

Dear Fred,

If your director is directly responsible for the actus reus (guilty act), he’ll be considered your joint principal and could be charged for the actual crime. But if he merely encourages you to “go with it” and be creative, he’d only be guilty of being an accessory to your crimes. As to your second question, New York State Penal Law § 70.25 (2) provides that concurrent sentences must be imposed “for two or more offenses committed through a single act or omission, or through an act or omission which in itself constituted one of the offenses and also was a material element of the other.” As for the applicability of your facts to the law, I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the genre. You’ll have to ask Roger Ebert.


This reader was named the as beneficiary in his probate a neighbor’s will but was frustrated by the probate process.

Dear Blogger,

I helped a neighbor write his biography and he named me as the sole beneficiary in his will. The man was pretty much a loner and only came out at night. I’d have to confess that he was a little batty. He was very old when he died and I can’t find his birth certificate. Also, he grew up in a remote section of Romania and I can’t seem to find his family. What should I do?


Bram Stoker

Dear Bram,

You’ve got a problem. The New York State Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) requires you to locate his heirs at law. If he had no spouse or children, you’ll need to research his family tree all the way back to his grandparents on both sides. You’ve got to diligently do your research. If I were you, I’d spend the money to hire a genealogist. Why not go with him and make a vacation out of it. I’ve heard that Transylvania is beautiful this time of year.

Dear Readers,

Keep those questions coming in. I’ll be happy to answer them or not, depending on my moods.


The Blogger

Encroachment…Defense…5 Yard Penalty!

October 2nd, 2011 Comments off

In the 3rd Millennium, prehistoric man picked up his hunting and gathering tools and moved to Mesopotamia to live with his fellow former cavemen. Thus, began civilization. The dawn of the next day witnessed the first dispute between adjacent landowners. It probably started over something minor. Perhaps Uruku’s camel too frequently fertilized Ebarbar’s front lawn. An argument ensued over picayune matters and quickly escalated to a full-blown feud until Ebarbar finally settled the matter by burying the hatchet . . . in Uruku’s skull.

After Hammurabi codified the laws, the hatchet solution became passé. So was spawned the first lawyer. Five thousand years later people still fight with their neighbors and lawyers are still busy.

Not-so-neighborly disputes arise over boundary lines, shared driveways, noise complaints and innumerable other actual or perceived injuries. To solve these problems, I advise my clients of their five options:

You can sue the bastards, but civil litigation is costly.

You can do like Ebarbar did, but criminal defense attorneys are also expensive and felony murder can get you a long prison term.

You can try to work it out.

You can ignore it.

You can move.

If the offense is minor, I always advise the client to choose option three and fallback on option four. No matter how many times your neighbor puts his trash cans on your side of the driveway, it’s not worth it to sue him. If you do, it will cost you money, time and aggravation. And it won’t solve the problem. You’ll find yourself mired in the quagmire of trench warfare which will make you paranoid and anxious. You’ll never again feel that you are at “home sweet home.”

Some offenses cannot be ignored or excused. If your neighbor paves over your lawn to make a larger driveway for his boat and RV, his encroachment impairs the value of your land and clouds your title – perhaps making it unmarketable. What can you do in such a case?

First, you should research the title to your property to see who owns the land in question. Check for easements, which are recorded agreements permitting adjacent property owners to use or cross your land. It may be that a prior owner gave your neighbor the right to place his driveway next to your geraniums.

It is essential to know your property line. Where does your land end and his begin? Only a licensed land surveyor can make that determination. It’s expensive to obtain a new survey. But if your surveyor can locate an existing survey, he can compare it with the “meets and bounds” description in your deed. He will measure your property by reference to fixed points such as intersections. The surveyor researches available property records and compares adjoining properties. He then measures distances with references to compass points to identify your property lines. Ask the surveyor to “stake the property” so that you can see for yourself and show your neighbor.

If your inspection reveals that your neighbor’s driveway is less that one foot inside your property line, a title company will insure the property as such deviations are minor. However, if own a small lot, a one foot encroachment can be significant regardless that your ownership is insured. Then, it’s your call whether to make an issue of it.

If the surveyor confirms that your neighbor’s driveway extends more than one foot onto your land you must take action to remedy the problem and reclaim the land. Even if you don’t mind the intrusion, it may prevent you from selling the house if your buyer can’t get title insurance or his mortgage lender determines that the value of the “lost” property severely impairs their investment. In the worst case scenario, an obvious, obtrusive and offensive use of your land for more than ten years will allow your neighbor to take the property by “adverse possession.”

What then can you do? Machiavelli once said, “There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.” But he didn’t have to pay a lawyer or live next door to his mortal enemy. Decide if the encroachment really bothers you or significantly impairs your use of the property. If not, one solution is to negotiate and sign a Boundary Line Agreement, by which you may permit your neighbor to use the land with the understanding that he doesn’t own it. It’s a good compromise. He keeps his driveway and avoids the cost and inconvenience of relocating it. You keep good title to the property and avoid the cost of litigation. You both avoid conflict which is essential to your sanity and peace of mind. Remember. You live here. This is “home” where you should be safe and happy.

The Boundary Line Agreement can be drafted so that it will expire upon a future event, such as when your neighbor sells the property or needs to repave the driveway. That provides a permanent but bloodless solution.

If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to resolve the problem amicably, it will be easier to justify spending the time and money to sue him.

The Sky is Falling!

September 18th, 2011 Comments off

It’s been a memorable August on Long Island punctuated by two rare natural disasters – an earthquake and a hurricane. The earthquake did little more that shake our buildings and our nerves. But Hurricane Irene’s unleashed fury caused billions of dollars in property damage. Yesterday’s Newsday headline pronounced that the LIPA bill to restore power would exceed $100 Million. Surely we’ll all pick up a piece of that unwelcome tab; but what about the individual costs that many people incurred. Power outages caused basements to flood, freezers to defrost and young children to go through video-game withdrawal.

The storm was the cause for disaster but its proxies were the trees which downed our power lines. Some were uprooted and others lost limbs. But whether they were killed or merely became amputees, their kamikaze missions claimed thousands of victims.

An Irish client of mine was knocked to the ground by a large falling tree limb. He sustained minor injuries but was saved from being serious hurt when the fence he walked beside deflected the brunt of the blow. When a witness told him that he was lucky the fence was there, he retorted with typical Gaelic sarcasm that if was really lucky he would have been walking on the other side of the street.

Thankfully, most of the casualties were inanimate, but the associated financial pain was acute nonetheless.

So after you’ve paid for the damage to your car, roof or fence, do you have any recourse against the owner of the tree? The answer is . . . maybe. Property owners owe a duty of care to neighbors and passersby to keep their properties free from dangerous conditions. However, the owner is not responsible in the event an “act of God” causes the tree to fall. Irene was a bad storm, but bad storms are expected events. God wil lnot take the blame if your obviously rotted tree falls in a rainstorm because you didn’t bother to cut it down.

The owner’s duty of care is only triggered when he knows about the dangerous condition (actual notice) or should know about it (constructive notice). The law is different for municipalities such as towns and cities which are only liable if they receive prior written notice that the tree presents a hazard. Even then, they are exempt unless the aggrieved party serves written notice of his intention to sue within ninety days after the accident. (See §50 (e) of the Municipal Law of the State of New York). Municipalities are otherwise exempt from liability by governmental immunity, a hangover from feudal times when being a peasant was never pleasant.

Next: What to Do if You’ve Been Damaged

“Not-So-Independent” Medical Examinations

September 14th, 2011 Comments off

Personal injury plaintiffs are routinely derided by the general public as phonies. Certainly, there are unscrupulous plaintiffs and lawyers who bring smear-job lawsuits. But too few people are cognizant of the dark side of the defendant’s defense.

If you bring a lawsuit for personal injuries, §3121 of the Civil Practice Laws and Rules of the State of New York (CPLR), permits the defendant’s insurance company to hire its own doctors to physically examine you. The purpose is obvious. Defendants have the right to verify whether a plaintiff is actually injured and the extent to which the injuries are permanent and/or disabling. Defendants euphemistically refer to these tests as “Independent Medical Examinations” or “IME’s” because the CPLR gives them the right to evaluate the plaintiff separately from what the plaintiff and his doctors may claim. To describe the defendant’s physical examination as “independent” lends an aura of righteousness to the endeavor as though only the defendant’s doctor may uphold his sacred Hippocratic oath to practice his profession ethically and without outside influences. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The doctors who conduct the examinations are paid by the defendants’ insurance companies. They serve at the whim of the insurance company. In so doing, many take a “hypocritical” oath. The doctor who too often determines that a plaintiff is seriously or permanently injured finds himself out of favor with his patron and unemployed. But certainly not all.

More often than not, the defendant’s doctor renders his services at a bulk rate. He may be paid only $100.00 per examination. How does he do it? Volume. He overbooks his appointments and examines plaintiffs in assembly-line fashion. He doesn’t dictate a full report but uses fill-in-the-blank templates forms to save time. Rare is the occasion when the physician spends more than five minutes examining the plaintiff. Rarer still is the occasion when the physician determines that the plaintiff is truly injured as a result of the defendant’s negligence.

Generally, there are five different methods by which the defendant’s doctor plies his tawdry trade to refute a plaintiff’s claim of injury:

(1) IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD: By this approach the doctor pejoratively references the plaintiff’s symptoms as “subjective.” If the plaintiff says that he has pain and can’t move his arm, the doctor claims that he has objectively measured the plaintiff’s range of motion and finds that he is not so restricted or that his range of motion is “within normal limits.” But what is normal? A thirty-year-old athlete can swing his arm in a wider circle than a fifty-year-old fat man who won’t get off the couch unless he needs to reach the cooler. Most times the examiner makes no distinction. God help the couch potato.

(2) NOT MY FAULT: Another twisted method is to claim that the plaintiff’s problems are “pre-existing” or the result of “degeneration.” True, few people more than forty can avoid the aging process. But how may the IME doctor explain that the plaintiff was asymptomatic until his Volkswagon Beetle was struck from behind by a teenager in his father’s Range Rover? Too frequently they ignore such facts or do not let themselves be fooled by the truth.

(3) THIS TOO WILL PASS: Sometimes IME doctors are faced by the physical evidence that the plaintiff is irrefutably and uncontestedly injured. How then may he serve his master? In such a case, the doctor must resort to a fallback position – “the plaintiff’s injuries are temporary.” Sure, little Joey still limps four years after breaking his ankle. Shortly he will fully recover.

(4) HALLELUJAH! JESUS SAVES: Another artifice in the IME arsenal is the technique wherein the defendant’s doctor proclaims the plaintiff remarkable recovery. Like a Pentecostal Preacher, he asserts that the plaintiff may throw away his crutches and walk.

(5) THE RORSCHACH APPROACH: Perhaps most sinister are the physicians who do not physically examine a plaintiff, but “review” the radiological records instead. The doctors who prepare such reports are uniquely positioned to practice medicine without a patient. Behind the cloak of a shadowbox they offer their not-so-professional opinions. Ask one man to look at an inkblot and he sees a monkey with an accordion. The next man sees a ballerina smoking a cigar. So if the plaintiff’s radiologist says that an MRI film shows a herniated cervical disc, the defendant’s doctor may say that the findings are evidence of degenerative osteophyte formations. Put the film in front of the jurors and call it what you want. The average person can’t tell. As Harry Truman said, “if you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

Taking Your Child to College or (How to Give Away All Your Money BEFORE You Die)

August 24th, 2011 4 comments

Tomorrow my wife Maria and I will bring our daughter, Ally, (and loads of our money) to Harvard where she will begin her freshman year. She has been packing for two weeks and I will need to rent a small semi to get all her things to Boston. I remember my parents sent me to Colgate with a trunk full of jeans and flannel shirts, some toiletries, and a winter coat (which I started wearing in October, I might add).

I’m sure that some of the differences between what I brought to Colgate and what Ally will bring to Harvard are gender-based. But the technical toys and modern conveniences that she has at her disposal are so far removed from my college experience to make me think I went to school during the dark ages. For instance:

  • Ally has a 3G Droid cell phone on which she can surf the internet; I had quarters and waited in line to use the hall phone at Center Stillman Hall;
  • She will have sushi and sashimi at a posh student “eatery”; I ate slop at the SAGA mess hall if I was hungry enough to brave the alpine trek from the Freshman Quadrangle to the bottom of Cardiac Hill and back up again.
  • She has an Apple computer and word-processing software to prepare “documents”; I knew a coed in West Stillman who would type my term paper for money IF I gave her enough lead time. Oh. And I also had all the apples I wanted if I was desperate enough to brave the ice and wind down the mountain and back up again;
  • She has an I-Pod so small she can carry it in her hip pocket; I had a turntable that traveled no farther than the longest extension cord.
  • She will have wi-fi, hi-def and cable television with over 200 channels; my dorm had a rabbit ear-ed black and white TV that played three Syracuse stations.

Then again, my parents paid $5,500/year in tuition, etc.; Maria and I will pay $55,000.00. Why is it that I feel I have been shortchanged twice?

Judging the Judges

June 16th, 2011 Comments off

It’s one of the lessons they don’t teach in law school or in any of the scholarly tomes on legal jurisprudence. Until you learn it, you are doomed to fail: there are three parties to every lawsuit: the plaintiff, the defendant and the judge. And the man* in the black dress trumps the other two every time.

Underneath the dress, judges are real people. Like all, they have strengths and weaknesses. But there are two prototypes – the “good judge” and the “bad judge.”

The good judge avoids the spotlight and is invisible until trouble brews. He has control at all times, but lets the lawyers try their own cases. He understands that real lawyers have more than one case. He knows that lawyers are real people with families and personal lives. He “moves” his caseload promptly. He also knows when a lawyer truly needs an adjournment and gives it to him. He can’t be walked over. He commands respect without having to demand it. He knows (or learns) the applicable law and all the proper rules of evidence and civil procedure. He makes prompt procedural decisions, but not until he first permits the lawyers to make their legal arguments. He doesn’t take offense easily or arbitrarily threaten to hold attorneys in contempt. He understands that expert witnesses have professional practices and tries to accommodate their busy schedules, knowing that the litigants will suffer if he precludes the expert’s testimony because he is not available at the judge’s “beck and call.” He is willing to work when the trial starts and not procrastinate. He doesn’t try to scare the parties or harass the lawyers. He makes the jurors comfortable. He is an honor to the sacred oath he takes to uphold the “public trust” and faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon them. In short, he channels the wisdom of King Solomon, who implored God to give him “an understanding heart to judge thy people and to know good and evil.”

The bad judge can hurt or kill your case.  He behaves like a tyrant. He interposes himself unnecessarily and tries the case for the lawyer, frequently losing it. He makes facial gestures to the jury, improperly and surrepticiously opining about the evidence in ways that won’t show on the record and, therefore, cannot be appealed. He doesn’t care whether justice is served, as long as he “moves” the case. He will pressure whichever side seems most pliable, regardless of the equities. He will “ice” the jurors by making them  wait  unnecessarily until they become so jaundiced by “the process” that the lawyers feel compelled to settle. He will unnecessarily berate an attorney, often threatening to hold him in contempt.  He relishes the chance to harangue inexperienced lawyers. He doesn’t know the law and doesn’t care to learn it. He forces the lawyers to produce expert witnesses at times when the witnesses have genuine scheduling conflicts, thereby creating unwarranted and untenable animosities between the witness and the lawyer. He makes attorneys sit and wait for days to pick a jury thereby creating office management problems. In short, he promotes the sale of Pepcid, Pepto Bismol, Xanax and Prozac.

Perry Mason, Boston Legal, L.A. Law, Law & Order miss the real action which frequently happens on the bench.  Judges rule their courtrooms like feudal lords. The great ones are like Solomon: wise and courteous. The bad ones are stupid, lazy and/or nasty. Once a client gave me a sweatshirt imprinted with the words, “A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.” The lawyer who can’t tell the difference between the good and bad judges, is doomed.

* Author’s Comment: the blogger takes literary license to use masculine pronouns so that the prose flows and does not cause the reader to doze.

The Real World – Property 102

April 30th, 2011 7 comments

“If you want it, here it is, come and get it, but you better worry ’cause it’s costs some cash.”

I was a first year law student attending my first day of class at the College of William and Mary and espoused with a thirst to for knowledge – to learn “the law.” Socrates would have been proud.

The course was titled, Property 101. Professor Pompous stood before the class. “Who among you,” he queried, “believes that possession is 9/10th of the law?” I raised my hand. So did many of my classmates; the rest wondering if it was a trick question. “Put down your hands,” he said with a smile. “By the end of the year you will learn that ‘possession’ is meaningless. The rule of law prevails.”

And so we journeyed through the course – from real property to personal property:

  • Leasehold rights passed from lords to knights.
  • Title chains lost and gained.
  • Adverse possession? An ownership obsession.
  • Riparian rights about the water? Does it matter – cash or barter.
  • Who owns the air? Sometimes its shared.
  • The statute of frauds; decisions narrow and broad.
  • Equitable conversion and ownership reversion.
  • Inter vivos gifts and partnership rifts.

He went on and on.   

By May, I was convinced. Later, imbued with confidence and my knowledge of “the law”, I emerged from the ivory tower of learning, passed the bar exam and began to practice law. It took about a month to learn that everything Professor Pompous taught me was a fairy tale. If John’s tool shed is on Jane’s land, she needs to pay a lawyer to sue him to have her day in court. That takes time and money. If she wins, he can appeal. If he loses the appeal and he still doesn’t remove the shed, she’s got to sue to enforce the judgment. If she doesn’t have the patience or the money, she loses.

My world was shattered. It was like learning that there was no Santa Clause, that the Easter Bunny didn’t eat the carrot I had left the night before.

I looked it up. When Professor Pompous graduated from law school, he worked for a “white shoe” corporate law firm long enough to have a cup of coffee. Then he decided to teach. He didn’t know jack.

In the real world, possession may not be 9/10 th of the law, but it’s better than half.

The Easter Bunny and New York’s Child Support Law

April 15th, 2011 Comments off

In New York State, parents are legally obligated to support their children until they become emancipated at age twenty-one (or sooner, under certain circumstances). The child support laws are codified as Domestic Relations Law § 240(1-b), commonly known as the Child Support Standards Act. DRL §240(1-b) requires each parent to pay support based upon a percentage of gross income (less deductions for NYC taxes, social security and medicare payments). Payment is based upon a schedule: 17% if one child; 25% if two children, 29% if three children, 31% if four children, and at least 35% if four children or more. The law is gender neutral; so the formula applies to any parent, male or female, as long as they are non-custodial, meaning that the child does not live with them. Enforcement of the law becomes more complicated when a parent has children with more than one partner.

To illustrate my point, consider the plight of the licentious Easter Bunny (EB). He is biologically challenged by the tendency of his species and genus to profusely propagate. Simply put, Mr. Sylvilagus Dicei is a male whore. He tries to fertilize any Easter egg he encounters. But his baby mamas have to pay for carrots and a lair on Watership Down and that costs a lot of cabbage.

He’s married to Mrs. Rabbit and has four children: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-Tail and Peter. Unbeknownst to his spouse, he also has a bunny with a Dutch baby mama, named Miffy. When he fails to support his little bastard, Miffy takes him to court and establishes paternity. The judge tells EB that he has to pay to play. EB is an independent contractor and makes $100,000 per year (after the appropriate deductions) on his Easter gig and royalties from the sale of Beatrix Potter books. The judge awards Miffy 17%, or $17,000. She brings an enforcement action which she serves upon him at his personal residence.

When Mrs. Rabbit greets the process server, she is hopping mad. She sues for divorce on grounds of adultery and is awarded custody. On a pendente lite motion she demands child support for her four children. She presumes that she will receive 31% of EB’s annual income or $31,000, but the judge awards her a lesser sum. He properly rules that the formula for child support must take into account EB’s legal obligation to Miffy’s son. He deducts $17,000 from $100,000 and awards Mrs. Rabbit $25,730 which is 31% of $83,000. Because she snoozes, she loses $5,250. It’s not fair, but the law is the law.

What if St. Patrick Had a Will

March 17th, 2011 3 comments


A will has no force nor effect until it is probated and the Surrogate determines that it is genuine, that the testator had testamentary capacity, that he was not unduly influenced by another person, and that he published the will before signing it. When a proposed executor submits a probate petition, he must notify all of the deceased’s heirs at law. Each must either waive his or her right to contest the will or be cited to appear in court to oppose the will. Problems arise when the testator’s family cannot be located. Petitioners frequently must hire a genealogist to locate lost heirs. The task becomes more difficult and expensive when the decedent emigrated from another country and his birthplace is unknown.

Yesterday, I met with a client who must locate the heirs of a man who was born somewhere in eastern Europe. Thinking about this problem and given that today is St. Patrick’s Day, I started wondering how difficult it would be to probate St. Patrick’s will.

Some historians have postulated that St. Patrick was not a living person, but a fictional character of legend. They’d get an argument, but not absolution, if they confessed their sinful thoughts to Father O’Shea this morning at the Cathedral which bears the Saint’s name. And they’d get a beer in their face but not in a glass if they voiced their opinion today in any Irish pub in Woodside.

For the true believers, St. Patrick is as real as the sun setting over Galway Bay.  But experts dispute his birthplace.

Various accounts have St. Patrick being born in Scotland, see: and in England, see: and in Wales, see: and in Boulogne, France (as per Dr. Lanigan, author of The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland) as referenced in this scholarly article, and, in Gaul, see this scholarly article: . To confuse things even further, Gaul was a Roman province which covered the area from France, Belgium, and westernmost Germany, see: St. Patrick was a Roman Citizen and the territory of Gaul also included the Italian Alps, even the Italians have laid claim. 

Two thing are certain. First, the genealogist’s bill would be very expensive. Secondly, everybody wants to have a piece of St. Patrick. And who can blame them. Look at all the royalties they could claim for his parades, and memorabilia.  I wonder what his wife, Sheilagh, would think about that?!?  Yes, some people in Newfoundland claim that he WAS married.  See:


While the proponent of the will would have a huge problem, his birthplace is not of concern to his many fans.  We can all share St. Patrick today, because everybody’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day.   Slainte!  


Estate Planning for the Elderly (With Apologies to Dr. Suess)

March 9th, 2011 Comments off

It’s a dilemma that every estate planner faces. Mrs. Martinez’ grandniece, once removed, (GNOR) makes an appointment for her to make a will. At the appointed time, they arrive together . . . alone. Mrs. M. is a lovely lady somewhere between 80 and 120 years old, has a strong accent and doesn’t hear well. GNOR offers to sit in on the consultation and translate. During the introductions, GNOR explains that Mrs. M. is a widow and lives in a large, old house. Her four grown children live out-of-state. GNOR lives in Mrs. M’s basement, pays no rent, but helps with the chores. She says that Mrs. M. wants to give her a power of attorney and devise her the house when she dies. She offers:

My Aunt’s an old woman who came from Peru;
She needs an estate plan but doesn’t know what to do
Her children are absent, don’t visit or call
As God is my witness, they don’t help at all.
One is a doctor who lives in St. Paul
Another’s in Georgia and speaks with a drawl
I moved in last year when my aunt had a fall
I’m here to help her for the long haul.

At the ends of the story Mrs. M. starts to bawl. What’s the real story? Should my skin start to crawl? As I offer her a tissue and a glass of water, I suggest that I speak to Mrs. M. privately.

Many elderly people find themselves alone when their spouses die and their children are grown. They need assistance and companionship but their traditional family supports have collapsed. So they look for other options. Hopefully they have well-meaning extended family members or friends who fill the breach. But too frequently, they are preyed upon by grifting wolves who cloak themselves in a shroud of love and friendship. The lawyer’s job is to help the client tell the difference. It’s a delicate but necessary task. You must separate the client from the “helper” so that you hear the clients’ wishes without interference. It’s essential to know if he or she is able to make an independent decision and isn’t unduly influenced. If you sense that the “helper” is helping him or herself, it’s time to pull the plug on the consultation as a lawyer is ethically estopped from preparing an estate plan for a client who is unduly influenced or mentally impaired. It’s a hard call, especially when the client is a stranger and seems to be in danger. The meeting is fleeting and physical infirmities like hearing loss or speaking impairment, may make an elderly person seem mentally incompetent when they are not.

The elderly client and the “true helper” are better served when the lawyer makes careful inquiries such as I have described. If he doesn’t, the will may be denied probate when a distributee challenges it.