Over the holidays, a colleague shared a story about advising an attorney for property. The attorney’s elderly uncle was hospitalized after a stroke, but was mentally capable. She was asked to attend to his banking and to bring him items from his home, where she had not been in several years. The attorney was shocked to find the second floor and basement of the house loaded to the ceiling with belongings, including spoiled food. The basement was full of vermin. Not wanting to upset her uncle or slow his recovery, the attorney offered to “clean things up a bit” and “throw out some of the garbage”. Her uncle became angry and told her not to do anything.
The attorney wanted to know if she could have the home cleaned (either for her uncle’s return or for sale), or whether she had a duty to respect his wishes. The attorney also became conflicted between her role as attorney and her role as niece. Her uncle is independent and quick to anger. She worried that he would revoke the power of attorney and then suffer another stroke. She also worried that she might be blamed by beneficiaries later for “neglecting” the home.
While these facts pose dilemmas and were very upsetting for the attorney, the suggestion that helped the most was to take a step back, and not make a decision yet. The uncle is not currently in the house, and he may not be able to return. If not, clean up could be dealt with prior to sale of the property. If he does return home, clean-up can be addressed when that decision is made. The house did not seem structurally unsound, and is insured, and so there is little actual urgency to deal with the house. Emotions and shock are understandable, but need not overwhelm the situation and that’s where being a neutral advisor can help.
Lesson Learned: Don’t miss the forest for the trees. When advising an attorney for property, sometimes the most important considerations are practical rather than legal.
Until next time,