Make it your legal resolution to get your affairs in order, Part 1

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?

Lauren Deal, attorney-at-law
Lauren Deal is a former teacher and prosecutor who is now in private practice with the Deal Law Firm in Macon. Her areas of practice include Family Law and Criminal Defense.

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.

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 info@thedeallawfirm.com. For more information about Deal Law Firm, check us out on Facebook or at thedeallawfirm.com.

Adoption – nothing in law is more rewarding than helping a new loving family

Through the fall and winter, I have been working with a beautiful young husband and wife, Dustin and Reta, to official welcome a new member into their family.

When I opened my law office in October, Dustin came to help with my technology needs. When he learned that I practice in family law, he told me about a baby, very soon to be born, whom he and his wife wanted to adopt. Dustin and Reta had been married many years, but they had no children of their own.

As I got to know Dustin, I learned his inspiring story. Dustin, along with several of his younger siblings, was taken from his home by the Georgia Department of Family and Children’s Services. After being passed around the foster case system, Dustin was eventually adopted by his grandfather. His siblings were also adopted by various families. As a young man, Dustin and his siblings reunited.

Happy new parents, Dustin and Reta, Baby Matthew and Judge Nunn
Happy new parents, Dustin and Reta, with Baby Matthew, his grandparents and Judge Nunn

In the summer of 2015, one of Dustin’s younger brothers and his wife learned they would be having a baby. He was their third child, and from the beginning, they were confident in their decision to give this baby to be adopted by Dustin and Reta. From their perspective, their baby boy was a blessing they could give to his big brother. When baby Matthew was born, Reta caught him and cut the umbilical cord. Dustin and Reta cared for him in the hospital, fed and bathed and changed him. They took him home with prayers that it was forever.

From a legal perspective, Dustin and Reta’s adoption was quite interesting: Georgia law provides one avenue for adoptions of children by their family members, which is in the law at O.C.G.A. section 19-8-7; the law also provides for adoptions by “third parties,” what you might consider an adoption by strangers, which is in the law at O.C.G.A. section 19-8-5.

There are two significant differences between family and third party adoptions. If a third party wants to adopt a child, the law requires a home study and criminal background check, which must be presented to the court with recommendations either for or against adoption; this is not a requirement for a family adoption. A third party adoption also requires that certain documents be sent to a state agency, the Office of Adoptions, who are not required to be notified of a family adoption. For an adoptive parent who has been through the foster care system as a child, these differences in the adoption process are stressful in a way that is unique to children who grew up in the system.

Because Dustin and his siblings were adopted by different families, they are no longer brothers. It’s a strange reality, for siblings who knew each other as children, lost track of each other in adolescence, and reunited as teenagers. They feel like brothers. Dustin’s adoptive son looks like him – same dimples, same smile, same eyes. And yet, an act of law renders Dustin a stranger to this child.

Nevertheless, my clients had their home study and background check completed by another caring local attorney. She recognized the love that Dustin and Reta already felt for their son, Matthew, and his love for them. Dustin has worked hard to overcome his difficult youth. He provides for his family so that Reta may stay home with Matthew, whom she has cared for since the moment of his birth. Together, Reta and Dustin have built a cozy home, a strong faith, and a close-knit family. They were whole-heartedly recommending for adoption.

Today, a short four months after meeting Dustin, I had the pleasure of filing the finalized order of adoption. Dustin and Reta are now Matthew’s legal and forever parents. There were moments of stress and confusion along the way, and I am grateful to the help and advice of attorney friends and the patience and faith of my clients. Nothing that we do in the law is better than creating new families, and the one they have made is absolutely beautiful.

If you are looking for an attorney for an adoption, please contact Lauren Deal at the Deal Law Firm in Middle Georgia. Call us at 478-254-9154, or use our automatic contact link on this website.

I’ve got a court date….now what? Part Two

IN my earlier blog post, I talked about the importance of having a lawyer to represent you if you are going to court.

Today, I’ve got suggestions for you, the client, that can better prepare you for your interactions with the judge and jury who will be deciding your case.

1. Be on time for court.

The most important thing for you to do is to show up, on your court date, on time. Early is better, but late is terrible. Judges are busy,Taking an oath in court and even judges who are late to court themselves get angry at parties to a case (and their family members) when they arrive late. Check out your car the night before: fill your gas tank, check out your tire pressure, be sure your fluids are topped off if you’ve got a leaky engine. If you’re riding with a friend or family member, ask them to do this for you. If you’re using public transportation, check the route times. Get your clothes ready, get your alarm clock set, and make sure everything you need is ready to go.

In criminal matters, a late arrival can mean a bench warrant. In civil matters, it can mean that you lose your case.

What if you have an emergency? Be prepared for the unexpected by programming your phone with the numbers for your lawyer, the clerk of court, the district attorney or solicitor (in criminal cases), and the other side’s lawyer (in civil cases). Call them all if there is an emergency and you will be late or you won’t be in court. Shouldn’t your lawyer call everyone else for you? Yes, in a perfect world, he should. Do it yourself, too.

2. Always dress your best.

How should you dress for court? Over the years, I have seen the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Wildly inappropriate outfits stand out in my memory the most: I will NEVER forget the older woman who wore a leather jacket, short leather skirt, fishnet stocking (yes, really) and over-the-knee fringed leather boots to court. My advice is always the same: wear the nicest, best fitting, cleanest outfit you possibly can wear. If you own a suit or a Sunday dress, wear it. If you can afford to buy something, even at a thrift shop or consignment, go get the nicest, best fitting outfit you can afford. Tie your shoes, tuck in your shirt, put on a tie if you have one….because the people who work in the court are watching, and they are judging. Justice isn’t blind to fashion, or should I say, to attire. When a man walks in with a suit on, or a woman walks in with a nice dress, every person who routinely works in the courtroom notices. We also notice the miniskirts, cleavage, sagging pants, and exposed chest hair.

We live in a time when it’s difficult for me to criticize clothing and fashion choices, but the harsh reality is that people WILL judge a book by its cover. I recommend caution when it comes to hair styles, body art, and jewelry: anything that can be covered SHOULD be covered. In the past, I have used clear retainers in facial piercings with great success at hiding them. If you don’t have access to clear retainers, check with your piercer about whether or not you can safely remove your piercing for the time you will be in court. And if you aren’t pierced, inked, or dyed, I don’t recommend doing work when you know you have a court date coming up. Sometimes, judges and juries are looking for a reason to find you’re guilty of something — even if that “something” is your appearance. Is it fair? No. It’s not fair. But it’s reality, and there is very little that your attorney can do to prove that the judgment against you was unfairly based on your appearance, even if you both know it to be true.

3. Bring support.

Evidence bagI’ve seen young men and women come to court by themselves, without a single person to stand for them. Especially in criminal cases, the lone defendant appears to have isolated every ally, burned every bridge, severed every tie. It’s much easier to send an isolated person to jail than it is to send a person with a loving and supportive family. This, too, is an unfair judgment, but it’s one that prosecutors, judges, and juries make. You combat this by bringing all the support you can: your parents, your grandparents, your friends, your bosses, your church mates…anyone who can sit with you in court or stand before the judge in your favor will make your side seem better to the court. Parents work, friends have responsibilities, and church members are sometimes as scared of the system as you are. So what then?

Never underestimate the value of a good letter. When I say “good,” I mean well-written. Ask a boss, a preacher, or a teacher to write a letter on your behalf, and give a copy to your attorney for your file. If you’ve completed substance abuse treatment, anger management classes, or defensive driving, ask for a letter to certify you’ve finished the course. If you are part of a group that does service work, for animals or kids perhaps, ask another member to write about your participation. Your goal is to show the court that you are a productive member of society, and letters can help you to demonstrate that.

4. Mind your manners.

It ought to go without saying that court is a time to be on your very best behavior…but unfortunately, it has to be said. I’ve seen everything from people going to sleep to young couples very nearly making out in the courtroom! Court is not a date night. No hanky-panky, no selfies, no chewing gum, no sleeping on the benches. While it’s good to bring family to support you, court is not a reunion, and you should remind your supporters that their behavior reflects on YOU, too.

One of my last jury trials for the state ended in a conviction. The large group of family and friends there to support the defendant went nuts: shouting, sobbing, fainting, threatening the victims…it was a nightmare. The sheriff’s office had to bring in reinforcements to clear the courthouse, and the victims and I had to be escorted out of the building. The judge observed all of this, and I can guarantee you that he remembered it when the family came before him again.

The court demands respect, and you need to be sure that your behavior — and the behavior of your supporters — is respectful.

This brings me to a final note…

5. Come to court substance-free.

Again, you’d think this would go without saying. But I have seen it, time and time again. Do not get drunk the night before your court appearance and come in smelling of alcohol. Do not smoke marijuana, use methamphetamines or cocaine, or take unprescribed or excessive amounts of prescribed narcotics. If you must take painkillers, muscle relaxers, or anti-anxiety medication for a medical condition, and you absolutely cannot wait until court is over to take these medications, make sure that your attorney knows you must take them, and bring a copy of your prescription with you.

In some jurisdictions, judges will drug test criminal defendants or parties to family law disputes. If you come to court drunk or high, you may face contempt of court charges and jail time. The constitutionality of these tests will not matter while you are spending 20 days in the county jail. Don’t risk it.

If you are facing a court appearance for a criminal or family law matter, and you’d like more information or advice about how to prepare your case for court, and if you are not represented by an attorney, please call and speak to Lauren Deal. We offer our first consultation at a reduced rate, and we are happy to talk to you. 478-254-9154.

Making the season bright

Baby sitting in front of christmas treeI was out of the office late last week, and for good reason….

When I opened my law firm in early October, I had the opportunity to meet a hard-working man. Honestly, after eight years in a busy District Attorney’s office, I was eager to chat with anyone who visited my quiet office.

I learned that this young man had been married for a number of years. He and his wife had struggled for quite some time to start a family. Unfortunately, they had been unable to do so.

Like many men and women, this husband and wife wanted nothing more this Christmas – and many Christmases before – than to be parents. They wanted to share their love with a child.

Adoption is an emotionally, financially, and personally difficult process. It’s scary, exciting, overwhelming, devastating…sometimes all of these at once, and not only for adoptive parents. It’s hard to find a birth mother who is willing to give her child to be raised in a loving home.

Yet for this family, it had already happened. They had a younger relative who wanted to give her unborn child for them to adopt. What they did not have was an affordable attorney to help them with the adoption process. That is where I came into the story.

Last week, the baby was born. The adoptive parents participated in the baby’s birth, and they were able to hold and care for their newborn child. To see the light in the mother’s eyes, and to watch the father hold his child, were some of the most fulfilling moments in my career.

Most beautiful, though, was the strength of the birth mother. She has always been certain that adoption to this couple was the right choice for her unborn baby. It wasn’t a sacrifice she was making, but a GIFT that she was giving. As we left the hospital, the look on her face was pure joy. Her tears were happy ones — for the new family, for her new relationship with them, for her new relationship with the child she gave.

Hers was the greatest gift a family could ever receive.

Parenthood is under attack

Every few months, it’s a different family.

Some are charged because they let their children walk to neighborhood parks without an adult. Some are charged because they allowed their children to stay in parked automobiles — in reasonable weather — while their parents ran into stores, offices, or even job interviews. Some are charged for allowing their children to play alone on playgrounds. Some are charged because their children miss more than the allowed number of days of public schooling.

Kid pulled over by cops.The end result is the same: the children are unhurt, at least physically.

The parents are arrested, interrogated by law enforcement and child protective services agencies, every aspect of their parenting scrutinized, their choices demonized. They may be charged criminally, or they lose their children, or they lose their jobs…or all of the above. This process is far more damaging to their children than the incident that brought their parents into the seat of judgment in the first place.

What has happened to our society? We have criminalized parenthood.

I was born in 1977. As a child, my favorite movies included Goonies, E.T., and Flight of the Navigator. What did they all have in common? Children having adventures without their parents.

The 1980’s were a good time to be a kid. We lived off in the country on a dirt road, and we had free range as long as my brother and I were together and took the dog with us. We went all over several miles and several hundred acres, making our own adventures. Our parents worked in Atlanta, back then a 30-minute commute.

My parents had enough money to buy us an above-ground pool, so in the warm months, we spent a lot of time swimming. Today, my parents would be jailed for letting two 8 year-old kids stay home alone all summer, much less for allowing us to swim alone.

When storms started, we waiting ’til lightning crashed down around us and heavy rains shook the pool water before finally dashing through the downpour to get into the house.

One day in 5th grade, my brother and I walked up the path we took from where our bus dropped us off beside a busy highway. We saw sand mixed in with the dirt, leaves, and brambles. As we neared our house, we learned what happens when an above-ground pool is struck by lightning: It explodes.

Never again have I treated thunderstorms as casually as I did when I was a child.

Meanwhile, we don’t give today’s children the space to make dumb choices. We don’t give parents the chance to BE PARENTS. We criminalize behavior that harms no one, using vaguely-worded statutes about reckless conduct or child endangerment. We demand that parents watch their children 24-hours a day (while simultaneously tsk-tsking parents who choose to co-sleep with their children), keep them in school regardless if they are sick, and hover over their playtime with antiseptic, band-aids, and a cell phone poised to call 911 at the slightest whiff of disorder.

We have turned parents into criminals, and children into our prisoners.