Category: Rants

Niece Fleece

My mother took her last breath on Wednesday, May 28th, 2014, just before 9am. Less than seven hours later, my niece went to the bank, accessed my mother’s safe deposit box, and emptied it of its contents, which consisted of nearly $200k in cash, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewelry and other valuables. Yes, this really happened.

Prior to my mother falling ill, this particular niece and I were not close, but she was certainly one of the few family members I trusted. She came to live with us when we were both in high school. She was a sweet girl, and I loved her. More importantly, she loved my mother, and my mother loved her. Over the past twenty years, our relationship had become marginalized by distance and time, among other things. However, never would I have imagined she’d be capable of such a stunt; never.

Before my Father died, he and my mother had a will constructed naming me the executor, a role that I was never keen on filling, but obliged to nonetheless, as I felt it was my responsibility to them, and the balance of my family. Following my father’s death ten years previously, and leading up to her own death over the next ten years, my mother struggled with what she wanted to do with her money and time. She stayed busy by investing in her church, as well into my niece, and her son, among other family members she’d hoped would find a straighter path.

My mother’s relationship with her three grown daughters, including this niece’s mother, was tumultuous for the most part. Alcohol and drug abuse were primarily the culprit, but it also had to do with childhood trauma, abuse, and a lot of hurt. However, my mother loved all of her daughters equally. All the same, she adopted my half-brother as her own, making five siblings in all. The will my parents had drawn up made each child an equal beneficiary of their estate upon both of their passings. It was definitive and fair.

About 6-8 weeks before my mother died, she contacted me to inform me of the report she’d received from her doctor.  I began to travel back and forth to my hometown to help her get her affairs in order. We met with her attorney, who was attempting to help her draft a revision to her will according to her wishes. My niece and I were present in all of those meetings, with exception of when they were discussing how she and I would be treated as beneficiaries.

During those discussions, I, along with my mother’s attorney attempted to assist my mother in deciding to whom, and how her monies and assets would be distributed. As usual, it was very difficult for her, and there were very large swings in who, and how much each person, and/or charitable organization would receive. In one of those meetings, my mother informed me that she was removing me as executor, and replacing me with my niece. I thought nothing of it at the time.

A few days before my mother died, I called her attorney to inform him of her rapidly deteriorating condition. I explained to him that it would likely only be a few days and she’d be gone. A day or two later, he showed up with a revised will and an IRA beneficiary designation, naming me and my niece as sole beneficiaries; something I learned of that morning. Her attorney, his assistant, a bank employee, and another witness entered my mother’s house. My niece and I stayed outside. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, they exited the house, and her attorney informed me she was unable to sign either, and he called it off, based on her condition. At the time she wasn’t speaking, and was taking large doses of pain killers.

Within the hour, I explained to my niece that because my mother had not signed the will, it was as if it never existed. I knew she had a key to the safe deposit box, so I instructed her not to access it for any reason. The assets in the safe deposit box would become property of the estate upon my mother’s passing, and would need to be distributed in accordance with the will. I didn’t want her putting herself or me, as the incoming executor, in a compromising situation.

A couple of days later my mother died. My niece and I, along with our spouses went to the funeral home to make arrangements for the service. My wife and I left, and headed home. My niece and her husband went straight to the bank. Never said a word to me or anyone else about it then, or for the next several weeks. It was only when I confronted her a few weeks later was she forced to fess up, and did so only in part.

Knowing I was to be sworn in as executor, it was my job to ensure that all assets were safe, and under my direct control. I needed to confirm that my niece had not accessed the safe deposit box at anytime following my mother’s death, as it would not allow the family to access it together for the first time to take an inventory and distribute the assets in accordance with the will. When I confronted her, she immediately became defensive and isolated, and from that day on, I have not spoken to her again. I pleaded with her through text messages, emails, and voice mails to talk to me about what had occurred, because following being sworn in as executor, I would have no choice to expose her. She never broke the silence. In fact, she attempted to convince my entire family of things that later proved to be untrue, so the story goes.

I was sworn in as executor, we filed a restraining order, accessed the box to find it empty. Months later in front of a judge, my niece was cold and calculated. She claimed that the contents of the safe deposit box were a gift. Her actions proved anything but. We found out that day in court that she had accessed the safe deposit box, emptied it, moved it to another box in the same bank with only her name on it. Later, she came back to the bank, and removed all of the cash and most of the valuable items and took them to anther bank. She never mentioned a word of any of this until she was confronted. On more than one occasion following my mother’s unsuccessful execution of the revised will, my niece would proclaim, “I don’t even care about the money.” I thought it was quite strange then, but it makes a lot more sense now.

Nearly a year later, my family has settled with my niece. It cost our family nearly $100k in legal fees to get back what belonged to our family to begin with. In the end, my niece traded her entire family for a little money, a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry, a trailer park, and two tons of heartache. All by her own choosing.

I’ve experienced divorce, and I’ve experienced death, and both have brought the worst out in the people I trusted the most. I can’t imagine ever being able to forgive my niece, but time is a gracious soul. Of all the time she spent with my mother, she obviously missed out on the things she stood for without fail; honesty, character, and integrity.

Here’s what you’ve been waiting for…

I’m embarrassed by all the things I’ve thought and wanted to say to my niece. I’m hurt that someone I trusted so much betrayed me, and what I feel like is my mother for some silver, so to speak. Reminds me of a story I once read. What’s most disturbing is that my niece is heavily involved in her church, has taught classes for women, and worked with another church member who received $100k from my mother six weeks before she died, and also claimed it a gift. How convenient. Many of these church members showed up at court to “support” my niece, clearly not knowing all the facts of the case, which don’t marry well with their doctrine.

I’m angry, but a small voice in my head reminds me that this too shall pass, and it’s not my responsibility to right other people’s wrongs; that every person will one day answer for their actions, and that in forgiveness there is healing. That small voice is my mother, reminding me that love is the answer. Maybe she’s right…just maybe.

Show Me the Money, and I’ll Give You the Girl

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Leading up the the 14 hour mediation my ex and I endured prior to our divorce being settled, I thought we had at least an agreement in principle. That was of course until I stepped into the conference room and began what ended up being one of the most difficult days of my life. It may have been less emotional had kids and money not been a big part of what drove every decision, but nevertheless it was a hard long day, and the biggest takeaway for me was that I never knew who I was married to until I divorced her. Money + kids + hurt = MPD.

You’ve heard the story before. I gave her virtually every free and clear asset I had; I kept all the debt, and she kept the kids. Literally. Because of some laws that need to change, and my own ignorance, she managed to keep the kids in her hometown, which is two hours from Houston, and coerced me into a ridiculous step-up program with my daughter which required me to spend a few hours at a time before I was able to get her overnight, and then later for the weekends, etc. It was as if I were a criminal. I certainly didn’t have to agree to any of that bullshit, but I did, because I was wrought with guilt, and emotional pain. Anyway, all of that’s over with now, but when I think about it, all that anger comes back. On to the point.

During the mediation, I unknowingly agreed to alternate Spring Breaks, although by law, I wasn’t required to do so. I caught the mistake the next day, called my ex, but she wasn’t budging. Over the next few years, my ex and I had many conversations about her “allowing” me to spend more time with the kids. I would propose every imaginable option, few to which she was agreeable to, and never to anything that included any multi-day or week long options, even when neither of the kids had school or any other restrictive reasons to keep them from spending a great deal more time with their Dad. If you are a parent, I’m sure you can imagine how difficult this has been, and for all those Fathers out there, and on some occasion Mother’s, who have restricted access to their children, I know you get it.

A few months ago, I took my ex back to court and managed to get the judge to grant my wife and I every spring break with the kids; a huge win for us and our kids. We were not successful in getting relief on spousal support, which ends in December, but frankly, I didn’t care one way or the other, and I felt we had a better chance with the judge if we had two things for him to decide on, kids and money. Her attorney put on some real theatrics too. He actually showed me drinking a beer as part of his “evidence.” What an idiot. The good news is, our judge is a fair, just, reasonable man, and he made the right decision. She keeps getting paid, and we get the kids; kind of.

My ex and I don’t get along very well, but things have progressed some, and I think over time, our relationship will continue to improve. It’s hard to forgive someone who’s kidnapped your kids, and then tells herself and everyone else that she did what was best for the kids. Good news is our kids are smart, and they’ll figure all that out when the time is right. In the meantime, I’m going to fight for every minute I can get with them.

I have always tried to write in a way that has an optimistic outlook on circumstance and life, but nearly all of my hurt and anger that lies just beneath the surface of my skin involves how I feel for my children. I’m thankful for the time I do have with our kids, but it’s never enough. I miss them before they leave, I miss them when their gone, and sometimes I miss them when they are here.

It’s Nothing Personal, It’s Just Business…Right!

From the time we are young, most of us are taught to be kind, considerate, respectful of others, and above all honest. In school, we learn to be punctual, responsible, and that there is a direct link between application and results.  Sport teaches us the value of working together as a team. College attempts to prepare us for adulthood by introducing accounting, ethics, psychology, sociology, and politics.  For a lot of us, our first job teaches us something much different.

My first “real” job was with a shipping company; I was 18.  For two weeks I received on the job training.  I learned how to operate the computer systems, drive a forklift, dock safety, and the company history.  My first day on the dock however, I learned about unions.  Over the next two months, I quickly became one of the most efficient workers on my shift.  The union workers hated me, and gave me hell.  I was cursed, threatened, forced to pay dues, and bullied.  I quit not long after a friend of mine was forced to defend himself in a fist fight.  He was unharmed.  I wasn’t sure if I’d be as lucky.

Since that first “real world” experience, I’ve had many more, and have learned that business is mostly a dog eat dog world, driven by the fear of many, and the greed of few.  Where secrecy, silos, and perception reign; and the arrogance and ego of men is celebrated and glamorized.  Where nothing is personal, just business.

Imagine this year’s best selling books with the following titles:

  • The Top Rung: How to Deceive your Way to the Top Through Bribery and Manipulation
  • Bankruptcy as a Business Plan: How to Make and Keep Millions you Don’t Deserve
  • Lawsuits for Hire: Let’s Hope they Settle
Do you think people would buy these books?  Maybe, maybe not, but I can tell you that this is exactly what happens every day in business all over the world.  I wish I was exaggerating, but this is the world we live in.  Thankfully, there are those who still believe in doing the right thing, and that Winners Never Cheat.  I am one of those people, and also one who believes that everything is personal.  We have a personal responsibility to be kind, considerate, and respectful of others.  To do the right thing, even when no one is looking.  To speak up when something isn’t right, and above all be honest.  I’m not sure when and where all of what we are taught as children and young adults gets scrapped for an entirely different set of ideals, but I’m confident if more people refused to compromise their core values, we’d have a lot less corruption, bankruptcies, and bailouts.
I lost quite a bit of sleep last night due to a recent lawsuit that was filed against me and a company I own.  It certainly comes as no surprise, but serves as a reminder of some of the things I’ve pointed out above.  I’ve already experienced a roller coaster of emotions, but must remain calm, and remember that “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” Right.

Stop Emailing and Pick up the Phone

When did it become OK to use email as a substitute for human interaction. Call me old fashion, but I feel that if I have something to communicate, other than facts, email just doesn’t cut it. It never fails that if and when I have attempted to communicate sensitive issues via email, the recipient interprets my “tone of voice” differently than I had intended. Then you spend more time trying to explain what you really meant, and things worsen.

Don’t get me wrong, email is a great way to quickly and conveniently exchange contact information, documents, and scheduling syncs, it just doesn’t replace picking up the phone and calling the person you need to speak to.

Of course there are exceptions, i.e. time zone differences, language barriers, and case building, but for the most part, there’s just no alternative to a phone call.

No One is and Expert

I read an article today by a well known journalist, who cited and referred to those he interviewed as “experts.” After reading the article, it was obvious that those who he referred to as experts were nothing near. It made me wonder who actually determines who is an expert in their field.

In my limited number of years on this great planet, and even fewer as a card carrying adult, I can tell you that I have realized, or at least formed the opinion that, no one is really any smarter than anyone else (Stephen Hawking, and the likes excluded.) There are definitely those who are more knowledgeable in certain disciplines, but very few experts.

Additionally, expertise is not immune to failure or bad decision making either. I may be digressing from what I’d hoped was going to be my point, so bringing it back home, let me say this.

Beware of one who refers to themselves as an expert. Don’t be intimidated by those who others refer to as experts, and finally, always be prepared to verify any ideas, concepts, or theories expressed by an “expert.”