How to Choose a Good Family Lawyer

Why would a normal family need a lawyer? After all, are lawyers necessary if you’re not charged with a crime? You see it in TV all the time. Bad Guy gets arrested and, when the interrogation gets hairy, he declares “I want to talk to my lawyer.” Apparently all Bad Guys have a lawyer on call. Since you’re not a Bad Guy, you don’t need one, right? Lawyers are for either the rich or the naughty, and you’re probably neither.

 

For the same reason you have a family doctor—even though you may see her only once a year, it’s part of being prepared. And when you do need to call an attorney, things can get complex fast, and he’s there to help you know your rights. “The main reason the typical American family needs a lawyer is because as society grows more complex, there are issues to deal with like financial, employment and housing market problems,” says Mark Howes of the Law Offices of Mark W. Howes in Annapolis. Gene Whissel of the Eugene M. Whissel II Law Office in Annapolis agrees: “When making a major decision in your life and preparing for the future, consulting an attorney is a good idea, whether buying or selling property, getting into a business agreement with somebody or negotiating a settlement or some type of dispute.” Nobody plans to need a lawyer, but you never know when a situation may arise. “When you need a lawyer most is when you least expect it,” says Jennifer Alexander of Brassel, Baldwin, Kagan & May, also located in Annapolis.

The legal path is lined with paper, so it’s helpful to have a few legal documents on hand. You should have copies of all employment and financial records. Also, deeds, car titles and other documents showing ownership should be kept in a safe place. “We take certain documents for granted every day. Those are the things that the lawyer needs to rely on when he is called upon to advise a particular consumer on some issue affecting the home, an untimely passing or job loss,” says Howes. If facing divorce, you should have copies of all filed paperwork and pleadings so your lawyer can become knowledgeable about the case. It is also advised to have a will, advanced directive which states your choices about end-of-life care and power of attorney.

You might think you can compose these documents yourself, but they may not hold up in court. “Whenever legal documents are involved, they should always be drafted or reviewed by an attorney because lawyers have special training. There are sometimes terms that have special meaning in a legal document that may have a different meaning in everyday language,” says Clara M. Bereston, an attorney in Annapolis. Remember that, in court, you will be held to the same standard as someone who fully understands the law. Be cautious of accepting information you read on the Internet as the truth. “A lot of people use self-help online but very seldom do they really fully understand or qualify to understand all that is involved,” says James Wise, who practices law in Chesapeake, Va.

Absolutely every family needs a will. “One of the most important things families should do for legal care is to assure themselves that their money goes to who they want,” tells Nicholas Exarhakis, an attorney with his own practice in Annapolis. Wills are especially important if you have minor children. “The will sets out via trust how much money is to be dispersed to your children, when and who will handle financial affairs of the child and who will take care of the child. Otherwise, it is open to the court,” adds Exarhakis.

Families, especially those with aging parents or family members with special needs, should look into establishing legal guardianship. “You can petition in court to have yourself or someone else appointed as the guardian for an elderly person. Sometimes people with special needs also need that service where a guardian is appointed to handle financial, physical and medical affairs of the person in need,” Exarhakis explains. If legal guardianship isn’t established, the court gets to decide what they think is best—and that can lead to years of legal wrangling. If your parents are in declining health, it’s best to establish guardianship while they can still make decisions — don’t wait until it’s too late to ask what they want.

There are smaller, more specialized situations in which you might need a lawyer’s advice. If you are on vacation and your child stays at home with a friend or relative, you should have a medical power of attorney. The same goes if your child takes a trip without you, say a school or church trip. This way, if your child has an injury or sinus infection, he can be treated by the pediatrician with the consent of their caretaker.

Same-sex couples in particular will want to clarify who the guardian of the child is and who has legal, custodial and physical rights. Since the laws regarding the rights of same-sex parents are complex and even vary from state to state, it’s particularly important that couples have their legal affairs in order. Even in the case of second-parent adoption (in which both partners are listed on the birth certificate, available only in some states), it’s important that couples consult an adoption or family lawyer every time they move into another state.

In the case of job loss, it is important to understand the difference between wrongful terminations versus at will employment. “You may have rights or avenues of protection to apply for and need an attorney to get you in the right direction,” says Howes. Those serving in our military should be informed of their rights by a lawyer familiar with military and federal government issues. “Military personnel have access to their Judge Advocate General office, which is helpful in preparing documents that allow their family members to carry on for them in matters of business and family,” says Whissel.

Be aware of your obligations and responsibilities. If you are presented with a document to sign, do not just assume its terms and conditions are fine. “No one should sign a contract unless they are one hundred percent sure about what it says. A lot of times people accept them without reading, which may obligate them to things,” explains Douglas Schenker of the Law Office of H. Douglas Schenker in Annapolis. If someone — at the car rental place, for example — has summarized the document, do not assume it is accurate. “The summary may leave out facts that make a difference,” says Schenker.

Every lawyer is different. “It is important to get someone you are comfortable with, who you feel will advise you and give you information that you need to best serve your goals,” says Howes. You may contact your county’s bar association and ask for the name of a lawyer who has experience in a specific area or get a referral from a friend. You should keep in mind that depending on the size of your family and your income, the type of advice you will need may vary. “One lawyer usually prefers not to do every type of law. If you have a situation come up that is unique, you want an attorney who would be able to evaluate whether it is something he can handle or refer you to someone who specializes in a particular area,” says Nevin Young, associate attorney at Krause & Ferris of Annapolis. Remember that being prepared means finding a lawyer for your family — before you need one.

By Jamie Lorber