Between the ambulance chasers, frivolous lawsuits, corporate maneuvering, high finance, and other big dollar areas of our society which are controlled by attorneys, it’s no wonder that dead lawyer jokes are as common as peanuts on a Southwest 737.
It’s understandable. Consider our nation’s finest minds, our most brilliant and highly educated physicians. These are people have worked their way to the pinnacle of the most highly competitive and respected field of work on the planet. They can cure the obscure diseases, reattach severed limbs, and banish pain. Yet these very same people cower in fear at a simple legal envelope bearing a return address containing the phrase “The Law Offices of…”
The sad fact of the matter is that attorneys hold all the power in modern America, and that is bound to create some resentment.
Even so, I don’t know many people who would have wished yesterday’s events upon Jerry Curry. Mr. Curry is a 53 year old Van Nuys attorney who was shot multiple times on live TV at point blank range over a dispute in a probate case.
If you haven’t seen the video, it’s pretty incredible. The assailant, William Striler, walked up to Curry outside the Van Nuys courthouse and began shooting. Curry took refuge behind a small tree and attempted to duck and weave around gunshots being fired from less than one foot away. After a half dozen shots, Striler said, “That’s what you get for taking my money” and walked away.
According to news sources, the Striler’s story was this: he’d been injured in an accident a year ago, and had received a $100,000 settlement. These funds were earmarked for his physical therapy and rehabilitation. The court had put these funds into a trust and appointed a professional trustee to manage the money (this was probably done due to some physical or mental disability on Striler’s part).
Anyway, this court appointed trustee had been collecting money for “managing” the trust (which is completely legal). Striler wanted access to the funds, so he had to hire an attorney, which cost him money. The trustee then hired Mr. Curry to defend the trust. Mr. Curry was being paid by the trustee out of Mr. Striler’s own assets in the trust. So in essence, Striler’s money was involuntarily being sucked out by attorneys to defend against his own attempt to gain access to money that was rightfully his.
Now I would be the last one to defend Mr. Striler’s actions, but I have to admit that his frustration and story are a familiar one. And from what I know of the probate court system, I am surprised this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often.
Our legal system has many problems. This is no surprise. But this incident brings to light one of the least publicized ones: the slow pace at which the probate courts operate. When I say slow, I mean slow.
There are several court systems. For example, the criminal courts are probably the fastest–if you kill someone, you’ll get your day in court pretty quickly. A little slower are the civil courts. So if you sue someone for slander, you’ll get your day in court, but it might take a while. The tax courts are slower still. But the granddaddy of them all is the probate court. This is primarily a court system for the assets of people who have died. So speed is not required, right?
Sometimes people are waiting on those assets in order to do things like buy food or pay for medical care (which was apparently the case for Mr. Striler). If it sounds like I have some personal experience with this, I do.
In 1982, my father died. I was ten years old at the time. When he died, his will was admitted to probate. The case remained open for fifteen years. By the time it was over, one attorney had been suspended by the state bar, the original trustee was being investigated by the court, and I gone from fifth grade to being a college graduate and the final trustee for the estate. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say it was a mess. What should have been a substantial estate was in ruins, and I walked away from the experience feeling that the legal system had done nothing but feed its own largesse by robbing a child after he was orphaned.
Even so, I can’t cast an aspersion against all attorneys. I’ve encountered some fantasic lawyers, two of which tried to bail my father’s estate out of the mess it was in. They did the best they could, and I will always remember their efforts. But the years of mismanagement and outright illegal conduct by certain parties had taken their toll.
Beyond the criminal conduct in my father’s estate, there are numerous other problems with the current probate court. The trustee situation is one of them. Right now, courts can appoint a professional trustee to run things. The problem is that they collect fees for their services, fees that in many cases can bleed away the assets until there is nothing left for the beneficiary except a mountain of paperwork. When I became executor of my father’s estate, I did so primarily because my attorney told me that if I didn’t, the court would appoint one and there would be nothing left by the time the fees were paid. So fresh out of college, I got to step right into the middle of a decade-old legal battle.
The probate courts are also extremely slow, unresponsive, and the oversight of trustees, executors, and attorneys is sorely lacking, as is appropriate punishment for those in the legal system who violate the law.
The past is the past. No sense dwelling on it. But as I said, I can understand Mr. Striler’s aggrevation with a probate case.
In the best of all possible worlds, this shooting would end with justice for Mr. Striler and a big dose of reform for our probate courts. If history is any indication, though, it will probably end with a lot of sensationalistic news clips for CNN and a visit to Oprah for Mr. Curry.
And so it goes.