When they aren’t killing each other in courtrooms, people who practice family law can be an affable and interesting crowd. Lawyers in this business clash all the time so it can be tough to maintain a grudge. After so many cases, you can’t recall why you felt betrayed by the lawyer who is getting a second beer at the bar of the conference on “Equitable Distribution.”
While waiting for that lawyer to get her drink, a common topic is what do you dislike most about being a family lawyer. There are two answers the first of which is custody work. The second, which is sometimes the first, is “personal property”. That’s the formal term for your “stuff” or the four letter equivalent that also begins with “s” and ends with “it.”
Clients get very attached to their, ahem, stuff, and when a marriage ends the order of fight is typically the kids, the house and then the “stuff.” What flummoxes lawyers is how invested people can get in their “stuff” and the money and time they will spend battling over things. Early in my career, I was representing a numbers guy; very high up in the finance side of a major pharmaceutical house. We had a four way meeting (clients and lawyers) and we chewed through the major issues pretty quickly. When we moved on to the personal property the fog set in. Four intelligent people were discussing glassware. Not Baccarat or St. Louis. More like who would get the stuff with the Flintstones and who would get the glasses the gas company would give you with every “fill up” of your tank. A few years later, in a similar case, the negotiations broke down over a portable vacuum cleaner. A new one, I should add. But, new then and now was $39.00.
How does this happen? On big subjects, clients will commonly say: “OK, counsel, make the concession. I have to trust you on this. Let’s get this divorce done.” Often, even very smart clients can’t grasp how the puzzle fits together when we do custody, support or who gets the house. But, they do remember every detail of the day they bought the chair George Washington sat in before the Battle of Trenton. Yes, they bought it but only because the wife insisted. And, even though it was put on husband’s credit card, he never understood what a find it was nor how great it is. The very idea that that “cur” suggests he should get the chair in divorce is “Game over. Let’s go to court! He never even sat in the chair after we bought it!”
As the lawyer for Mrs. Chair you see that while you have been trusted to recommend decisions about where the children will live, who will keep the house and how much will be spent on communions, college and weddings, if you don’t get General Washington’s chair, you are toast. The chair, the dustbuster or the Wilma and Barney glasses are the proverbial last straws.
Now for the reality. Clients spend hundreds of dollars per hour to get best and brightest lawyers. As we sit on our humble swivel chairs we might know there was a battle in Trenton and Washington was involved. Where Washington sat that night before standing in a Durham boat destined for Trenton is unknown to us. All we know is that our clients are fighting over a chair.
Chapter 2. I currently act as the executor of an estate of a longtime client and friend. She died unexpectedly after a lifetime of collecting “everything.” Glassware, flatware, Quimper, scarves, kid gloves (think Jackie Kennedy), toy cap guns, princess phone keychains and marbles. Her whimsey was enchanting while she was alive. But now, I have a house crammed to the rafters with “stuff.”
There are more than 200 pieces of jewelry stuffed in nooks, crannies and cracker tins. As her executor my job is to liquidate it “responsibly.” I fancy myself somewhat aware of good, bad and ugly in the collector’s world but when I brought an auctioneer and some antique dealers into the house their response was “Wow, she collected everything.”
This week was jewelry week. I had two dealers come to the decedent’s house to look at 200 pieces of jewelry. They brought jeweler’s loupes (magnifiers), scales and chemicals to test whether the gold was filled, plate, 10-14-16-18 karat. I sat while they did their work and watched them. I took notes as they called out the karat and pennyweight of each piece they deemed “worthy.”
While I watched this enterprise, I grasped how vulnerable everyone is to the “market.” Today 14K gold is worth $1,000 an ounce. You may read $1,900 an ounce in the newspaper but that’s 24K gold. The offer I got was $900 an ounce for 14K and then adjusted for lower and higher karat contents. Now, my client’s gold was fabricated, which is to say it was made into chains, lockets, pens (yes fountain pens) and all kinds of things. But as I watched the jewelry being evaluated I had to ask: “How many people want a locket intended to hold a piece of a dead person’s hair?” If the buyer can’t find a customer for that locket, it goes to the smelter where it will become an earring or a nose ring or whatever. So, the fabrication often has no value. Now if the gold has been fabricated into a vintage Rolex watch the value will be immensely greater than the same gold formed into a locket holding human hair.
Then there is the buyer-seller question. Take your handy gold Rolex to your local jeweler and ask them to appraise it. They assume you will want a replacement or “insurance value.” You say this is a yellow gold Rolex Yachtmaster II. They will probably write it up at $43,000. Look on Ebay and they will offer you a chance to replace yours at $20-35,000. The conditions vary but the BIG condition is: “Are you buying or selling?” The difference is also affected by year, model, gold content and condition. But most important is the fact the dealer is not buying your Rolex out of love for you. He’s doing it so he can sell at a profit. And in the world of $20,000-$40,000 watches, the fellow who pays you $28,000 may not be able to sell it for $38,000 for a year or more. Meanwhile that fellow pays, rent, insurance, utilities and employees who attend to retail buyer like you or me until it sells. That cost is significant.
Now we have General Washington’s chair. Washington lived 66 years. He traveled a lot which means he sat in lots of chairs. But you believe your chair is the one he plopped in the night before the iconic Battle of Trenton in 1776. That’s unique. Unfortunately, George was not in the habit of autographing where he sat with “G.W. 12/25/1776.” So, it’s an 18th century chair with an authentication issue. We recently dealt with a case where the client held a painting by a world famous English artist. If authenticated, at least $250,000. Alas, no expert would sign off on authenticity so it was just another nice 18th century painting. Then we get back to the idea that the dealer you contacted wants to sell it and make a profit on this investment. You could auction the object but in today’s market you will pay the auctioneer 25% and so will the buyer. So, if your painting does command $250,000, half of that value never leaves the auction house. You don’t care about the buyer but $250,000 yields a check of $187,500 to you.
The other thing going on today is that the age of collectibles is largely in the rearview mirror. Many of us grew up in a world where our parents bought gobs of Dutch Christmas plates, Lladro and Hummel sculpture and anything that the Franklin Mint could fabricate; from coins to beer steins. Our parents believed that the limited editions of these products would naturally enhance in value over time. Some did. But almost all of this stuff is saturating the market. Want to sell Mom’s 1977 Bing & Grondahl Christmas plate and you can join a cast of thousands in rabid pursuit of $12.00. I tell clients that lawyers at their hourly rates of $300 “eat” 25 Christmas plates an hour while we fight over their division.
Appraisers can be useful but at $50-150 an hour you get little more than a lovely report. When you ask: “Would you offer me these values?” the answer will be “Yes, on some of this stuff where I know I have an instant buyer, but otherwise thanks but no thanks.” Put differently: “I believe the beer stein will bring in $75.00, I just can’t tell you when.”
So, yes, it might be George Washington’s chair where he plotted his traverse of the Delaware and defeat of the Hessians. But your “find” will undoubtedly have authentication issues and, lest we forget, mid-18th century furniture is passe while mid 20th century is ‘hot’. Again, an $8,000 chair is consumed by 2 lawyers charging $400 an hour every 10 hours. How many hours are you ready to spend on that wonderful chair before the lawyers become its new owners?