MY STORY OF A LEGAL NIGHTMARE
In the summer of 2002, I received an email from my high school sweetheart, whom I hadn’t heard from or knew anything about, for 40+ years. He graduated 2 yrs ahead of me and he had a younger brother in my class. Evidently, the brothers had a conversation in which the younger brother revealed that I didn’t go to our class reunion the previous summer, but I sent my information, which stated that I was registered on “Classmates.com., and that I was single.
One evening, checking my email, I was shocked to get a note from him and that he had been living and working just about 50 miles from where I lived. We exchanged a few emails and then agreed to meet for dinner. He told me he was in the process of a divorce, and I told him that I was willing to talk with him, but I wanted nothing to do with his divorce or have any influence on his decisions about it.
As the months went by and we continued to email, and we got caught up on history, it was obvious that some of the old feelings were coming back. As his divorce was nearing completion, we took a trip to Las Vegas and discussed a lot of things, including the fact that he had gotten a job as professor at Texas A&M.. To make a long story short, we got married in Aug. 2003, and then I prepared to sell my house in Oregon, as he went back to Texas.
Through the next month, with communication by phone and/or email everyday, we gradually came to the agreement that we would build a house in TX. We spent a lot of time looking for a suitable plan and came up with one online which just happened to be nearly a perfect match to a plan that a builder in TX was using, whom Rob had talked with. At that time, we had agreed to each put in our share of funds into this project. My funds would basically come from the proceeds of the sale of my house. At that time I had a buyer, but had to wait on the contingency of their house selling. That sale did not happen and I ended up listing with a realtor, so we couldn’t be certain if the sale of my house would close in time for me to contribute my share...well, it didn’t happen in time. So Rob borrowed the rest of the money needed and we agreed that I would contribute “after-the-fact”; in the way of needed furniture, window dressings...all the extras that are needed for a new house. I also needed funds to buy a second car and other necessary items for my going back and forth between TX and OR (not to mention airfare)...because I have MS and a few other health issues that would not fare well in the hot, humid weather in TX during the summer months. Since Rob had to travel a lot in the summertime, he didn’t object to that scenario. He knew from the beginning that my health problems would present some lifestyle adjustments. And it gave me the opportunity to see my family in the summertime. I stayed with one of my sons for the summers.
It was a wonderful adventure for me, and everyone who knew Rob said they had never seen him so happy and relaxed. But, it didn’t last long. In December 2004, we traveled to Oregon to spend Christmas at my daughter’s house, (my family normally spends Christmas there). Before we left for that trip, Rob and I talked again, as we had so many times, about getting a will done. We agreed that we would make the time to do it when we got back from the trip.
We arrived there Christmas eve and had a wonderful day. My family, particularly my grandchildren loved Rob. After a luscious dinner, Rob and I went back to our hotel room. It was a cold night and as I turned up the heat in our room, Rob mentioned that he was hot & sweaty. I was surprised, but I’m always colder than most people, so I put the thermostat on a moderate temperature. Rob went to bed first while I was taking a shower. He was asleep when I crawled in bed. I woke up at 2:30 am, realizing that his hand was touching my side and it was ice cold. I touched him and I knew...he was gone. Through my raging tears and utter shock, I checked his pulse and breathing, just to make sure. I called my daughter and screamed into the phone “Rob is dead!” I went down to the lobby and told the night clerk, who called the appropriate people. My family and a few friends arrived in a short time, along with police and the coroner. The rest of that day is now a blur in my mind. We all went through the motions of a typical Christmas day, but it was clouded with tears and planning all the people we had to call. We had a service in a geographically convenient town for all family members and friends, with plans for another memorial service in Texas later.
I then had to go back to Texas, sell the house, get the probate started and pack up everything so I could move back to Oregon. One of my sons went with me so I wouldn’t be alone, but he could only stay for 3 days. It was a long and difficult process to go through all of Rob’s papers and artifacts (he was an archeologist) and try to decide what to do with them. I did have some help and advice from some of the wonderful staff at A&M who worked with Rob. They were all very kind to me...I called Rob’s secretary “my angel”...and we are dear friends today.
I didn’t know any attorneys in Texas, but had to hire one to help me through the probate...especially because there was no will. In my research online, I kept getting info indicating that Texas was the ‘worst’ state to die in without a will. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I had to keep moving ahead. I hired an attorney on the advice of a friend, who said her sister had used him for some minor issue after a relative’s death. So, I met with this attorney and he seemed to have all the right answers, so I hired him. He told me that after I made a court appearance, we sold the house and I was appointed administrator of the estate, I could go back to Oregon and it would get taken care of. Before I left his office, I explained that I had MS and if the “stress of all this were to bring on an MS attack, it could render me totally useless”. His reply was, “Well, I guess that’s why I need to help you all the way through this.” That made me feel confident that he would do a good job.
After the house was sold, many papers signed, 4 months later, I got packed up and went back to Oregon. Before I left, the attorney told me I could take half of the proceeds from the sale of the house. I was relieved, since I would need to find a house in Oregon...it wasn’t enough to replace what I had spent of the funds from the sale of my Oregon house, but it was start. Then, Rob’s life insurance designated half of that payout to me. So, at that point, I felt I could afford to buy the size house I needed to have room for my sewing hobby and be able to keep most of the furniture we had bought for the TX house. However, I was shocked when I got back to Oregon and realized what had happened in the Realty market. The house I sold just 2 yrs prior had almost doubled in value! A realtor friend of mine helped me frantically look for something suitable. I quickly realized I didn’t have many choices and the housing prices were still climbing. So I bought a house that was narrowly in my price range that would give me the space I felt I needed.
Soon thereafter, in a conversation with my attorneys (the young associate in the office was helping with the case), I was told that I was not entitled to half of the proceeds of the Tx house; only 1/3. So, I sent that amount back to the estate account. At that point, I became certain that I had not hired the attorney who would do the job as I had expected. When I first got back to Oregon, his receptionist called me and asked me to try to track down Rob’s 3 sons(all of whom lived in different states) and find out if they got the waiver that he sent them because they need to be signed and in the office the next day. I asked if he had sent them certified and there was no answer. I had worked as a paralegal before I became disabled, and that was a very common, if not mandatory practice when we sent documents or information that was important to know if they were received. So, I had begun to have doubts about my attorney’s expertise early upon my arrival back in Oregon. Then, there was a frantic day when I had to run down to a notary to get papers signed for the sale of the house to submit for court approval, which my attorney had “overlooked”, previously. The first signing was not exactly the way the court wanted, so it was another rushed trip to the notary. Then there were the numerous times, the attorney called asking for certain documents which I had either given to him before I left TX or had sent to him later...so I had to look them up and send another copy.
Not long after I got to Oregon, Rob’s ex-wife filed a claim for certain monies, which started a year long investigation/research to determine the rightful heir, because it involved different states with different rules/laws and the judge had to make the decision which rules took precedence.
As the months went by, I would periodically have a phone or email communication with my attorney, and each time I got the feeling that he wasn’t paying any attention to this case or he didn’t know what he was doing. There were many conversations over a 3-4 year period that he would say something like, “Well, we should be able to get this probate closed in 3-4 months”, which is what he told me as I was leaving TX. We had a phone conversation in October 2006 in which he said we could have the case closed before Christmas. As I recall, I also asked him if he needed me to update the accounting of the estate that I had given him before I left Texas...he said he would let me know.
By December 2006, I was notified by court documents that Rob’s youngest son had file a claim demanding that the “Administrator” file an accounting of the estate. The document listed all the things that “the Administrator” had failed to do. I hadn’t fully realized until then that my attorney’s failings were MY FAILINGS in the court’s eyes, and could, at some point be reason to fine me (award damages) or send me to jail. I discussed with many people what I could do. At that point, I was reluctant to start over with a new attorney...and didn’t know how to go about finding a “good” attorney in Texas. I also realized that had my attorney done what he should have done (what he said he would do), this claim would not have been filed. And, as I thought about it, I had to wonder if it was all calculated...ignoring the case long enough that someone would file a claim, just so the attorney could glean as much money from this case as possible. I remembered him asking me twice in our first meeting if there was anyone in the family who might want to cause problems.
During much of this time, through this 4-year period, I had several health problems that hampered my ability to take care of the paperwork that needed to be done. Shortly after I moved into my house, I broke a tooth, which required 2 oral surgeries, and while under-the-influence of the pain meds, I tripped and broke my foot. Then in 2007, I contracted Lyme disease, which presented some symptoms that essentially did render me “useless” for a period of time. I have no way of knowing if the illness is under control at this point or if it’s going to be on-going. So, during those times, I was not capable of even trying to get the attorney to do the job, but I don’t think it would have done any good, just as it didn’t before that time.
At this time, Oct. 2008, I have received another court order awarding all but a fraction of my husband’s investment funds to the 3 children, and I have to pay the son’s attorney fees, and I don’t get anything from the sale of the house (pay back the funds that my attorney told me to take, which went into the house I purchased).
Obviously, the court has thrown out/ignored the fact that Rob had written to the investment company that he wanted to change the beneficiary designation on all his accounts to list 70% to his new wife and 30% to his sons. But, since I was not there (in TX), and I haven’t seen much of the written work that my attorneys have done, it could be that they failed to point that out to the court.
I’m not angry or bitter about the way the finances ended up. I’m upset about the 4 years of stress and turmoil that I have experienced, at times feeling that I may end up on the street (or at least in a shack) because of the mistakes & neglect of my attorneys. And each time I received court documents listing all the failures or “wrongdoings” of “the administrator” (me), I felt like a criminal during my times of ill health. I feel that there is a huge flaw in our justice system in that the average person has no recourse in a legal battle if you are living in a different state from the venue of the case. During this process, I talked to a few Oregon attorneys, who said they couldn’t do anything but give me a few words of advice/suggestions, since they were not licensed in Texas.
When I took the paralegal course in Oregon years ago, in the probate class, one of the first things we learned was that in an intestate case, the court’s first responsibility was to try to determine the wishes of the deceased. This, obviously, was not done in my late husband’s case.