I.A. Law, PA
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HARPER LEE: WHO ARE HER WATCHMEN? A couple of years ago, late one night, I found myself watching a documentary on Nelle Harper Lee, which I would not have thought of until Ms. Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, was already #1 on the bestseller lists before it even hit the shelves or readers’ tablets. This is because this documentary mentioned a book that Harper Lee would never release. At least, not until now. Back in the 1950’s, Ms. Lee had already completed the first draft (second or third?) of Go Set a Watchman. The draft did not meet the expectations of her agent, who suggested Ms. Lee go back and revise.  Specifically, the agent requested that she write Scout recounting her memories as a child. As a first-time writer, Ms. Lee complied and her revisions became the Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a novel written during the very tense issues with racism in the south. One of the biggest criticisms to have come out from post-publication reviews of Watchman is that Atticus Finch is not the same valiant and heroic man we met in Mockingbird. As a human race, we cannot diminish the impact stories and literary characters have on our psyche and sprit. We admire those characters that exemplify the qualities that make a human being great and respected – peaceful, humble, wise, loving, and compassionate (to name a few). But Ms. Lee’s agent may have been onto something. And this could also explain why Ms. Lee wrote Atticus’s character the way she did in Mockingbird. It was because she had something to compare Atticus to – someone who had grown bitter, callous, and racist in his old age (the way depicted in Watchman). Maybe Ms. Lee’s agent simply knew that people needed hope and that’s what the personification of Atticus Finch and Scout would give readers for years to come in Mockingbird. So much so that Mockingbird became part of American literature and our curriculum. Now, isn't a bit suspicious, knowing such a story about Ms. Lee, that Go Set a Watchman is a published work in 2015? Is it suspect that only recently Ms. Lee’s longtime attorney and sister, the person responsible for protecting Ms. Lee’s rights and property, recently passed away at age 102? Isn't it also odd that Ms. Harper Lee, who up until this time lived as a recluse ever since Mockingbird was published and who never published anything else in all this time, decided that her final legacy should be the publication of this second novel?  The documentary I watched those years ago painted a picture of a woman who was content and happy living in a small town, unabashed in the company of those she personally knew. She was notorious for declining interviews and television appearances. She was the rare type of author, who like J.D. Salinger and Hunter S. Thompson, preferred to live in anonymity. The novel that boosted her to fame never affected the way she chose to live her life, which was simply and surrounded by family and friends. Is the publication of her new novel being done despite her true intent and wishes? In light of Ms. Lee’s ferocious insistence on privacy throughout her lifetime post-Mockingbird, Watchman is being published and once again pushed her into the limelight. All this while Ms. Lee sits in an assisted-living facility in her hometown and among reports that she is nearly deaf and blind. It is unclear the contents of Ms. Lee's estate plan or guardianship arrangements, but her story reminds us the importance of planning for life's circumstances. Estate Planning Having a well-executed estate plan can alleviate many problems in the future, including but not limited to, naming individuals you wish to inherit your cash or assets, designating individuals to manage your financial position, as well as appointing individuals to take care of your children. Estate planning not only considers and protects your money and assets, it also protects your family members because it honors your choices as to who deserve to be entrusted. . A well prepared estate plan, incorporating asset protection if needed, can also help to reduce abuse of the elderly person who may be experiencing dementia, loss of memory, diminished ability to manage their own assets or money, depression, and other illnesses prevalent amongst the elderly. The beauty of estate planning is that it is not a one size fits all plan. There are numerous way to draft an estate plan and it can protect from the wealthiest to the poorest. This is because estate planning is not only a mechanism to protect assets, it also protects and honors the family dynamics. In addition, a simple but effective estate plan can minimize the time and money spent once a family member passes away. Florida Probate Briefly, if a person passes away in the state of Florida, and they did not have an estate plan in place for the distribution of assets (more of this on the next blog post), including their cash, the family may have to open a probate case. Probate refers to the court’s administration of a deceased person’s estate. The court’s involvement allows the family members to distribute the assets either in the manner stated in the last will and testament or in the absence of a will, in the manner in which state law dictates. There may be horrendous consequences for the deceased and their loved ones if there no documents, such as a will, have been executed. For example, if the deceased parent leaves behind 5 children (and assuming there is no spouse), and 2 of those children had no relationship with their siblings or their deceased parent, those estranged children would STILL BE ENTITLED to a share of the parent’s estate. This is because the court will not know what the deceased’s intents or wishes were in the absence of having a legally executed document in which such intentions or wishes are properly stated. This means that the court will have to administer the estate according to the laws of the state of Florida. Even with a last will and testament, the court proceedings will be costly and sometimes the court process takes over a year until the estate is settled. Estate planning not only contemplates a person’s present situation, a well drafted estate plan will also consider the implications once a person passes away. Florida's Durable Power of Attorney One of the most powerful documents included in an estate plan is a durable power of attorney. This is especially true here in Florida, where the power of attorney laws changed as of 2014. Other attorneys have described the General Durable Power of Attorney as “the most effective burglary tool since the crowbar.” I tend to agree. A Durable Power of Attorney should always be a document included in a Florida resident’s estate plan. Chapter 709 of the Florida Statutes addresses powers of attorney and similar instruments, including its definitions. A “power of attorney” is defined as “a writing that grants authority to an agent to act in the place of the principal.” Florida Statutes §709.2102(9). “Durable” means “with respect to a power of attorney, not terminated by a principal’s incapacity.” Florida Statutes §709.2102(4). “Agent” is defined as “a person granted authority to act for a principal under a power of attorney.” Florida Statutes §709.2102(1). “Principal” is defined as “an individual who grants authority to an agent in a power of attorney.” Florida Statutes §709.2102(11). By definition, the durable power of attorney exists so that an agent can make decision on behalf of the “principal.” As the Florida Statutes state, it is in effect EVEN WHEN a person is not incapacitated, meaning, it is an IMMEDIATE power. If you take the time to truly understand the significance of the term, the durable power of attorney is THE most powerful tool because as much as it can benefit someone, it can also significantly harm a person in the present. This is why you cannot take lightly the decision-making process that goes into establishing who in your life is trustworthy. Anyone can go to these websites that provide legal documents and download one, fill it out, and proclaim that they are “protected.” The power of attorney is a complicated legal document; unless you have read the statutes, and know the power and the role these documents play in your life, it is recommended that you consider speaking to a licensed attorney about the ramifications these documents can have on your situation. These ramifications can include exploitation and abuse – not dissimilar to what may be happening to Harper Lee. Abuse of Duties Under Florida law, exploitation may include, but is not limited to: (1) breaches of fiduciary relationships, such as the misuse of a power of attorney or the abuse of guardianship duties, resulting in the unauthorized appropriation, sale, or transfer of property; (2) unauthorized taking of personal assets; (3) misappropriation, misuse, or transfer of moneys belonging to a vulnerable adult from a personal or joint account; or (4) intentional or negligent failure to effectively use a vulnerable adult’s income and assets for the necessities required for that person’s support and maintenance. See Fla. Statutes §415.101(8). If you or someone you love would benefit from an estate plan or a properly drafted legal document such as a power of attorney or a last will and testament, you can contact the offices of I.A. Law, PA for a free 15-minute consultation. Resources: In today’s Internet age, there are many electronic resources available to help inform and educate you and your loved ones. For example, the Florida Bar offers an entire section dedicated to the public with respect to different areas of the law. Please check out our “Resources” page for more information. Additionally, Florida has a longstanding program dedicated to helping the elderly, as often times they may be victims to perpetrators such as their friends, family, and even assisted-living facilities. Florida has a Long-term Care Ombudsman Program. Their mission “is to improve the quality of life for all Florida long-term care residents by advocating for and protecting their health, safety, welfare and rights.” The link to their website is also provided in the “Resources” section. If you have any questions regarding the information you read via any of the links, you can contact the offices of I.A. Law, PA for a free 15-minute consultation.
I.A. Law, PA
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This is officially the firm's first post. We are excited to intersect our practice areas with actual news and events occurring around the world. Next Post: Did Harper Lee Authorize the Publishing of Go Set a Watchman? When duress and incapacity matters in probate and estate planning.

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