“I Can’t Afford an Attorney”

Oh, the lies we tell ourselves: “I’ll quit as soon as I finish this pack.” “He really loves me; I just said the wrong thing.” “I just have big bones.” One of the worst lies we tell ourselves is, “I can’t afford an attorney.”

If you are thinking that you cannot afford an attorney, it is because you need one! You ask yourself where the nearest restroom is because you feel a biological need to use one (unless you are four, and fascinated by public restrooms like every other four-year-old). You do not wonder about restrooms if you do not have a high-water or excess-cargo problem. The thought that you cannot afford an attorney must have been triggered by the realization that you need an attorney. And if you need an attorney, what you cannot afford is not to consult one.

Donald Dexter’s Case

A woman came to see me in 2008 about her deceased son’s estate. The son, whom we will call Donald Dexter, had purchased a house on land contract in the ‘70s. It was paid off in the ‘80s. However, he had not consulted a lawyer to make sure the house was in his name. Had he done so, it would have cost him a few hundred dollars at the most.

An attorney would have contacted the sellers and demanded a deed and title insurance. When he died more than 20 years later, nearly all the records had been lost. To probate the man’s estate and secure title to the property for the man’s heirs cost over $10,000 in attorney’s fees.

The county title records for Donald’s home showed only that a fellow we will call Adam Arnold received title through a quit-claim deed in the ‘50s. The only other name we had was Alice Arnold, who had written a letter to Donald in the ‘80s regarding a final payoff on a land contract. The case became like an episode of “Forgotten,” with me playing the role of Christian Slater. I found a half-dozen possible “Adam Arnolds” and eliminated them one by one. I finally got lucky when I found Alice Arnold’s probate estate in a neighboring county.

Alice’s personal representative was her sister Charlene Carter. Alice’s heirs had been Charlene and their sisters Ermine Edwards and Fiona Arnold, all in their 80s or 90s. Fiona was 95 and had been in a persistent vegetative state her whole life due to a birth trauma. From Charlene, I learned that Adam Arnold had died in the ‘50s and his wife in the ‘70s. Alice and her sisters had been the only heirs.

My client’s son’s property had not been properly disposed of in any of the relevant probate proceedings. I had to file extensive pleadings to persuade the judge that all of the persons who might have had an interest in the property had been notified and had either waived their interest or failed to respond.

Azalea Anderson’s Case

A lot of people buy property on a land contract and never receive the proper paperwork to secure title. I had a client referred to me by Lincoln Behavioral Services, where I am chair of the board of directors. We’ll call the client Azalea Anderson. Azalea bought her house on a land contract from a real estate company and paid it off in the 80s. The real estate company failed to give her a warranty deed and title insurance, as it was obligated to do. Fortunately, the real estate company was still in business, so it was easy to sue the company in an action to “quiet title.” Azalea was delighted when I sent her the recorded judgment giving her full title to her home and refunded the money she had put up for costs. I even received a small fee in the settlement I had worked out with the real estate company.

Azalea was fortunate that I was able to help her at no cost to her, but she had spent several years worrying about whether she would be able to stay in her home. It would have been much better to have consulted an attorney when she paid off her home.

Grist for Trust Mills

Do-It-Yourselfers and people who have non-lawyers create deeds, wills, or trusts for them can be even more “fun” than the procrastinators. A number of my clients have been victimized by “trust mills.” These are insurance agents or outright scammers who sell estate-planning kits door-to-door. Usually, there is an attorney in the background who signs off on the documents with little or no direct contact with the consumer. Several victims of trust mills have consulted me when they found out that the estate plans were not what they wanted and that their investments had been tied up in inappropriate annuities or other investments. Not only had they received worthless generic wills and trusts, but they had paid the trust mills more than I would have charged!

If any of these clients had consulted me when they paid off their house or purchased an estate-planning kit, they and their families would have avoided serious legal problems. A competent, responsible attorney will not charge a client more than their services are worth. Many times I tell a client that they have a legitimate complaint and could sue the other party, but there is not enough at stake for a lawsuit to be worthwhile. Even if I cannot take their case to court, they usually feel better because their situation has been professionally evaluated.

The next time you think, “I can’t afford an attorney,” call my office and make an appointment. You cannot afford not to.


John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2010 John B. Payne, Attorney