Monday, April 26, 2010

Odd Doc Monday

For the family member of an Alzheimer's sufferer, documents come to stand in for a life. There is the document that makes me my mother's guardian; there are documents threatening me if I don't complete the inventory of my mother's assets for any given year; there are the tax forms I sign in her stead; there are the frequent Defense Department forms I have to sign to assure them my mother has not remarried. (I have taken to writing in the margins, "She has Alzheimer's and is in no position to remarry!") These documents carry an emotional weight very different from those acquired during two adoptions, although the diction and tone of bureaucracies are remarkably consistent. In each instance, persons are represented by, mediated through, documentation whose wording is tortured, banal. We are our finances, our certificates, our licenses. And yet still, somehow, the documents also carry a freight of feeling with them. To what extent am I my mother when I sign for her? What might it be like for her to fall in love again, could she do so? Why do I feel so angry when I'm called upon to prove not only that I've not cheated my mother out of her money, but that I may have added money to her account without recording where it came from? No matter how hard the writer tries to dampen her language, emotions flare. Even a document has a memory, but that memory is ours, something the document itself claims to forget.

So the letter I received the other day from our lawyer was at once filled with pathos and irony (mostly thanks to the lawyer's barely suppressed wit). I've copied it above. It seems that if you die this year, and this year only, the rules for dealing with your estate will be different from the 2009 rules and the 2011 rules. The lawyer sets out "old rules" and "new rules" for her reader, using indented letters and numbers in good legalistic fashion.

But the wording of this document achieves an odd brilliance on the second page, where the lawyer reports in section (2) of indent (c) that "the 'old rules' encouraged the use of IRS-approved words and phrases in your will and living trust which, under the 'new rules,' may have no meaning whatsoever, resulting in confusion and possible disagreements with the IRS." She follows this marvel of crazy logic with the dry remark that "you may have read that Congress was unable to agree on anything." That the "approved words and phrases" result in "no meaning whatsoever" and that "no meaning" results in "possible disagreements" goes against the very principle of documentation!

She saves the best for last: "Again, these new rules are only for people dying in 2010, so if you think that you, or a loved one, might be in that (unfortunate) group, we would suggest you call us to set up a meeting to review your documents in light of the new rules." Will our call, our meeting, result in our finding meaning, or simply in setting out what we ought to do in case meaning breaks down? I'm tempted to call and ask.

[You can click to enlarge the photos to make them readable, if not meaningful.]


Mitchell Sommers said...

Us lawyers can, occasionally, surprise with dry wit.

True story: About 17-18 years ago I represented the owner of a Mobile Home park who was trying to evict a family because the neighbors were up in arms (actually, planning a rent strike) unless we got rid of them. The tenants themselves weren't the problem, but their 20 something drunken head case of a son was.

Anyway, cut to the injunction hearing in Reading, PA. We are introducing evidence that the son had dragged his (pregnant) wife out on the front lawn, starting throwing various household objects at her, then jumped up on the flat bed of his pickup, pulled down his pants, yanking on his penis and started screaming, "Suck on this, bitch." As I was drawing this story out through one of neighbor-witnesses, the tenants' attorney objected, saying "The PA State Police never filed charges." To which I responded, "We will stipulate there was insufficient evidence."

Back in chambers, later on in the day, the judge told me, "Do you have any idea how goddamn hard it was to keep a straight face after that?"

Susan M. Schultz said...

Ouch Mitch. Remind me to look at some of your documents sometime!