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When Do You Need An Attorney
Author: Robert Hohenberger
I represented Ginny* during her divorce and hadn't seen her since. So I was surprised when she called me in a state of near-panic. A stranger had called demanding that she give him the $2500 he had paid for her car. Ginny had never heard of the man before.
A few weeks earlier, she had sold her ten year old clunker to someone who had answered the ad she placed in the paper. She was asking only $600 for the car and was pleased when the first person who called paid the asking price - and he paid cash! At the time, she could not believe her good luck. Ginny handed the title to the purchaser and he promised he would return in a few days to finish the paperwork. He gave her his phone number and other contact information.
Then she received the phone call from a strange man who claimed to have bought her car. The first thing she did was call the person she thought she had sold her car to.
Of course, when she tried to contact him, she discovered the information he had given her was bogus and that he had disappeared. Since this had been a cash transaction, she did not even have a check to prove she had sold it. Because the title transfer had never been recorded, the second buyer assumed Ginny was the one who had sold it to him and the other person acted as her agent.
Ginny was in deep trouble and she certainly did need an attorney when she called me. In the sale of her old car, she had unknowingly committed several crimes. She had not executed the odometer certification which is required by federal law. Nor had she paid the state sales tax on the $600 she received from the sale of the car. If she had done either of these, she would have been able to prove when she had sold the car, even though the purchaser did not record the title change.
Ginny was not aware of the scam the buyer of her car was playing. He bought clunkers and resold them without ever changing the title. Then when the next buyers realized they had been taken, they went to the original owner of the car, who frequently paid the money to prevent a lawsuit. Selling a car seems like a simple transaction and so often people do not consider consulting an attorney, but in this case, it would have saved Ginny a lot of money and trauma
Another legal area where people often think they can do it themselves is writing their wills. It is possible to buy a boiler-plate form in office supply stores or from various internet sites. For some people, especially those with no children and no property, this might be sufficient.
Not long ago I attempted to probate the will of a professional man who used a standard form because he wanted to leave everything to his wife, Sandra*. When I presented the will to the judge for approval, he required Sandra to post a costly bond unless her three grown children agreed to forego it. As often happens, a family feud ensued, costing the family much more than the nominal attorney's fee for writing a will. The dissention between family members was the highest cost of all. Unfortunately, unless a will is prepared properly for each individual situation, the aftermath can end up being acrimonious, as it did in this situation.
Be it a will, an amicable divorce, or even selling a car, people often do not consider consulting an attorney, thinking they do not need one or they will save the money. Then something happens and everything goes wrong, as it did for Ginny and Sandra. Their problems could have been prevented.
Few people realize that the best time to contact an attorney is before you think you need one. Sometimes the few dollars spent for a quick consultation can save you hundreds, even thousands. Even more important, it might save you from making a huge mistake.
* Names have been changed.