Each year my Firm receives hundreds of telephone calls from people and company owners who are seeking advice or representation for their legal issues, and our lawyers spend considerable time discussing their issues and legal options with them. Yet many of those telephone calls end with the callers simply fading away, or deciding to postpone action for another day. My questions to them are “where do you think you can go where the law will not find you?” or “how is something going to happen if you don’t take some action?”
Perhaps it is human nature to procrastinate, but it is mindboggling to me that people do not undertake the legal action they should be taking in a timely fashion to protect themselves and their families from future problems. Some examples follow of my experiences:
Husband and wife divorced 10 years ago. Wife could not afford a lawyer so there was not a property settlement agreement negotiated or determined by a judge. The property was purchased while the parties were married, but the deed is only in Husband’s name. Wife wants to know what she can do about placing the property in joint names with Husband, or forcing a sale of the property so she can claim a share. When I advised Wife what she can do and what she should do, her response was “okay,” and that was it!
A caller’s father, who was a widower, died 10 years ago without a will. The father’s children, including the caller, agreed that one of them could administer the father’s estate, which included real estate. The agreed-upon administrator permitted her son to live in the father’s house rent-free for 10 years, and the other siblings have never received any distribution from the estate. The caller doesn’t think anyone is or has paid real estate taxes for some time because she thinks the house is up for sheriff’s sale. When I told her what she had to do she said she would talk to her siblings, I didn’t hear from her again, and that was it!
A caller called to say that her bank account had been frozen. There are only a couple ways in which this can happen. In the private sector in order to execute on a bank account one must have a valid judgment. A valid judgment occurs when one is sued in a court and either did not defend, defended but lost the case and did not appeal, or was not properly served and did not know about the lawsuit. The response to my questions from callers with similar problems is invariably one of the following:
- I could not afford an attorney and did not defend the lawsuit.
- I don’t remember ever receiving notice of the lawsuit.
- I didn’t know they can take funds from my bank account or take my personal possessions.
When a judgment has been taken we would have to investigate if the judgment was appropriately taken or if service of the underlying lawsuit was proper. If we notice a problem we try to open the judgment, which must be agreed to by a judge. Thereafter the case may have to be retried or settled by negotiation. A judgment does not disappear until many years have passed via state statute, or it is marked satisfied by the party bringing the lawsuit.
Sometimes people have paid the judgment but did not request or know that the judgment must be marked satisfied, and it may remain on their record or credit score, or impact their ability to sell real estate in the future.
A caller asked what he needs to do to become a legal landlord in Philadelphia. I discussed licensing and lease language with him, and the pros and cons of operating as a corporation, as well as the tax ramifications. He did not even want to spend a small amount to learn the legalities of his future business. If this man does something inappropriately, and runs afoul of the city or taxing authorities, which will likely happen as he is not interested in learning the correct way to operate, it will cost him thousands of dollars to remedy the situation.
Traffic tickets for moving violations or parking tickets do not disappear. Many years down the road, even after someone has moved to another state, they often find that their license has been suspended because of tickets they have ignored, or in some cases, tickets which have been accrued by others to whom they have loaned their cars or to whom they did not legally transfer title. Many states have reciprocal agreements with each other and will honor action taken to suspend a driver’s license due to tickets in a different state.
The law is a living breathing system. It will not go away just because one closes their eyes or tries to ignore it. Ignoring that one has been sued – or failing to take action in a timely manner within the statutory deadlines required under the law – will only come back to haunt one at a later date.