By Lauren Deal
Deal Law Firm
The new year is upon us, and now is a good time to stop and take stock of our legal health. Consider if any of the following apply to you:
I. Wills and Estates:
First and foremost, do you have a will? If you don’t already have a will, you need one. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. Consider every piece of property that you own: your home, your vehicle, the money in your bank account…okay, okay, I know that it’s the month after Christmas and maybe your bank account isn’t anything to write home about, but you get the idea….if you die without a will, do you know who will get these things?
Your next of kin will inherit your property if you die without having a will; generally, if you are married, your next of kin will be your spouse. If you are unmarried, your children, parents, or even your siblings may inherit your property if you do not have a will. Sometimes this can have unintended consequences.
Many years ago, my grandparents built a house. Literally. My father and uncles helped my grandfather build his home. After my grandparents passed away, one of my uncles purchased the house from his siblings, who co-owned the home under the terms of my grandparents’ wills. At the time, my uncle was still married to a woman he met later in life, from whom he had been separated for many years. When he passed away suddenly, without a will, this woman inherited my grandparents’ home. Despite the best efforts of family members who offered to buy the home to keep it in the family, she sold the home to someone else. If my uncle had had a will (or a divorce, but we’re getting to that one momentarily), the house would have remained in the family.
If you do have a will, you should read over it. Make sure that any newly born or adopted children and grandchildren are included, as well as other family members, friends, and institutions for whom you plan to make bequests (gifts through your will). Confirm that you are satisfied with your choice of executor and that the individual you’ve chosen is still capable and willing to perform the task. As you age, your friends and family will age, too, and you’ll want to review your will on a yearly basis to make certain that your appointed representatives are still viable choices.
Regardless of your age and personal health, you should also have a Georgia Advance Directive for Healthcare. This form in Georgia designates someone to make important medical decisions for you if you are unable to make these decisions for yourself. It also allows you to choose what types of life support and medical interventions you want in an emergency.
For healthy young or middle-aged adults, a power of attorney may not be necessary, depending on your personal and financial circumstances, although it’s worth considering if you frequently travel out of state for work, are a member of the armed forces subject to deployment, or if you travel to other countries frequently for long periods of time. I have numerous friends with family members who live in Europe, Canada, and China, and they all spend weeks and months at a time overseas to care for their family members, leaving a POA to manage their affairs here in their absence.
II. Ongoing Litigation:
Are you involved in any ongoing litigation: divorce? Child support? Car accident? Personal injury? Social security? Criminal accusation? Now is the time to contact the clerk of the court where your case is pending and request court dates for the new year. Make sure that both the clerk of court (and your attorney, if you have one) have all of your most recent contact information, especially your mailing address. If you have an attorney, call him or her and ask for a status update on your case, and if there have been any significant developments since your last conversation, consider making an appointment to update your attorney. For cases that are dependent on medical conditions, such as workers’ compensation, personal injury, and social security disability, the new year is an excellent opportunity to confirm that your attorney has all of the necessary medical records.
III. Family Law Issues:
Periodically, I receive calls from men and women who have been married – and separated from their spouses – for five, ten, even twenty years, without divorcing. If you’re in this situation, make this the year when you end your marriage. It can be challenging to locate a spouse you haven’t seen in fifteen years, but a lawyer can help you follow the correct procedure to obtain a divorce. I once helped a gentleman divorce after twelve years of no contact with his spouse, who didn’t even live in Georgia. We tried to locate her with the help of law enforcement in her small town, but ultimately, I had to file notice through the newspaper. My client had put it off for years because he was worried about the difficulty of completing the process, but we were successful in ending his marriage without the stress or confusion he had feared.
If you are divorced with children, consider the current status of your custody and child support cases. If there has been a material change in circumstances that substantially affects the wellbeing of the children, since the date of the divorce or the last custody order entered, then you may have grounds to modify custody. Such changes in circumstances can include the age and wishes of the children, the living arrangements of the primary custodian, the amount of time each parent is actually spending with the children, and many other factors.
Similarly, you may be able to modify your child support if there has been a substantial change in the income or financial status of either parent, or a substantial change in the financial needs of a child, or if it has been two years since your last modification of child support. Situations that may qualify as “substantial changes” include an involuntary loss of a significant amount of income and one parent spending significantly more or less time with the child than was originally ordered.
I have represented a number of parents who, at the time of their divorces, were the non-custodial parents of their children, but who had become the primary custodian before coming to me. I’ve also had clients come to me when they had lost their jobs through no fault of their own when they had an obligation to pay child support. It’s important to keep in mind that child support is due to the receiving parent until a new court order modifies what has previously been ordered. If you are downsized and lose your income, or if your children decide to come and live with you full-time, you MUST file a modification action to stop your obligation to pay child support under the previous order.
I had a client who had divorced in another state many years ago. He had an obligation to pay significant monthly alimony to his ex-wife for the rest of his life, as long as she was alive and unmarried. In his 60’s, my client had lost his job nearly two years before he came to me, yet because he had not filed a motion to modify his alimony, he accrued a $90,000 arrearage of what he owed to his ex-wife. While we were able to get his future alimony payments extinguished because he could not find another job, he was on the hook for the amount of the arrearage that accrued before he hired an attorney. Granted, ending his alimony saved him millions of dollars in the long run, but if he had filed for a modification after he lost his job, he would have been free of that obligation sooner. To his credit, my client had delayed because he continued to search for employment and did not abandon the hope of meeting his obligation until significant time had passed.
The moral of the story is crucial, though: if you have a court-ordered financial obligation, it does not go away just because your financial or custodial circumstances change unless you return to court to modify the pre-existing order. If you’ve delayed obtaining a modification, now is the time to act.
IV. Criminal Law-specific Issues:
If you’ve been in downtown Macon recently, you’ll have seen (and hopefully used) the new parking machines. But have you gotten any parking tickets? If so, now is the time to check and be sure that you’ve paid them, along with any outstanding traffic tickets, fines, and other charges that can impact your driver’s license.
If you are facing criminal charges of another nature, it’s essential that you check on the status of your case. It’s not unusual for cases to linger for months, and even years, without being indicted by the district attorney’s office. I had a client arrested in 2014 on an allegation that he filed a fraudulent insurance claim, and it was just indicted at the end of 2018, shortly before the 4-year statute of limitations would run out, which would have caused the case to be dismissed for failure to prosecute during the statutory time limit. Whether your arrest was one, two, or five years ago, now is the time to check on the status of your charges. If you’ve already got an attorney, he or she can assist you. If you don’t have an attorney, you can contact the clerk of the court, the district attorney’s office, or the state court solicitor’s office to find out the status of your case. Don’t assume that just because you haven’t heard anything about your court case in several years, it’s gone away…in all likelihood, it hasn’t.
If you’ve already been convicted of a crime, and you were placed on probation, now is the time to check in with your probation officer to be sure that you’ve complied with all the terms and conditions of your probation, including payment of any restitution, fines, and court fees. If you had fines and court fees that you can’t afford to pay, you could also ask your probation officer to convert them into community service or help you find another solution to help resolve the issue. Don’t ever avoid reporting to your probation officer because you don’t have money. If you’ve paid off all the fines, fees, and restitution, now is a good time to ask your probation officer if you qualify for early termination of your probation.
When I was still an assistant district attorney, I was approached by a gentleman who’d had a felony drug charge in the 1980s – and nothing since then. I was able to assist him in the process for restoration of his civil rights. If you have a long ago and far away felony charge, consider that now may be the perfect time to consult an attorney about having your civil rights (including your right to vote, right to serve on a jury, and right to possess firearms) restored.
A restoration of rights is different from an expungement, but generally speaking, if you were arrested for a crime that you were never convicted of, you may be eligible for an expungement of your criminal record. Again, now is a great time to confirm with an attorney whether or not you would qualify for an expungement, and if so, how to obtain one.
Consider the items on this list carefully. Some of them may not apply to you or your family, but if you take the time to be certain that you have handled any issues you may have on this list, you will be well on your way to a legally healthy new year.
For more information about these issues, or for help keeping your legal resolutions, contact attorney Lauren Deal at Deal Law Firm, LLC, 901B. Washington Avenue, in Macon, Georgia. Call our office (478)254-9154, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Deal Law Firm, check us out on Facebook or at thedeallawfirm.com.