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David W. Eckman, Christian Attorney
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Christian Stewardship and the Law

Copyright 1999-2010 by David W. Eckman

eckman-law.com

[Originally published under the title "Your Stewardship and the Law", this article has been expanded and updated and is checked periodically to confirm its currency. It includes brief discussions of various subjects based on Texas law and does not attempt to address the laws of other states, although the general discussions may provide insight for those in other states.]

Like most people, you may not be aware of your vulnerability to legal liability. You may not be aware of the risks in signing legal documents. Businesses and informed people avoid or minimize these risks by consulting a lawyer. But you may not even know when to do that or may be uneasy about talking to a lawyer, especially if all you have heard are bad reports or you receive your impressions of lawyers from television shows and movies.

Jesus instructs us to be as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16). Proverbs praises having an abundance of counselors (Prov. 11:14, 15:22 and 24:6). Hopefully, they will be Godly counselors.

In the world, you may own what is in your possession, but in the kingdom of YHWH, a Christian is only a steward for the LORD. As a steward over the possessions YHWH has placed in your care, you may want to consider some of the subjects discussed below.

Comments in the following subjects are general. The comments are not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. In any particular situation, you must seek legal counsel based on the facts of your situation.

Finally, as a servant of Jesus Christ, I encourage you to remember that in all legal matters, even though it is wise and proper to seek Godly counsel, nevertheless YHWH must be in charge. Seek his will: in prayer, in scripture and in the counsel of mature and prayerful Christians. Our first duty is to serve him, to fulfill his commission to us, to be transformed from within by the work of the Holy Spirit so that our lives and our words reflect the life of Jesus Christ at work in us, even if imperfectly. Meditate on what pleases him.

If you place your basic trust or faith in the ability of any lawyer, it is misplaced; if you put your trust or faith in YHWH, you can do no better. In all things, remember that Jesus Christ really is LORD.

Remember who He is and whose you are

Subjects

  1. Car loans
  2. Child support
  3. Contracts in general
  4. Consuming, credit and their dangers
  5. Deals "Good for today only"
  6. Deed restrictions
  7. Divorce and debts
  8. Home improvements
  9. Home purchases
  10. Home sales
  11. Investments
  12. Lawyers' fees
  13. Lawyers: selecting and employing one
  14. Lawyers: warning signs
  15. Lawyers: locating a Christian attorney
  16. Living trusts
  17. Powers of attorney and other estate planning tools
  18. Prizes, "free" offers, and other scams
  19. Standard and blank form contracts
  20. Title insurance (land and home)
  21. Wills



Deals "good for today only"

Any deal that is so good that it won't be available tomorrow is no good in my opinion. If there is not enough time for you to think about it and study whatever you have to sign for it or have a lawyer look at the documents and get other professional advice that may be appropriate, then you don't want to get into it. If the salesperson won't be around to give you the same deal tomorrow (true of most door-to-door and phone sales), then he or she won't be around to give you your money or property back when the deal turns sour.

The Romans gave us an apt expression for such deals: "Buyer beware" (caveat emptor). So, if you don't sleep the night after taking on one of those deals, don't delay in taking action. You may have a right of rescission (the right to cancel it), especially for solicitations made at your home. However, the period is typically short (e.g., 3 days), so exercise your right of rescission immediately. If you think you may have been scammed, contact the police or the District Attorney or Attorney General's office right away.



Car loans

If you buy a car, paying only a small down payment and agreeing to pay the rest over 3-4 years, you will most likely be signing a promissory note, with the lender or seller keeping a security interest in your car in case you fail to make all the payments. That note will typically be sold to a company that handles financing only.

If you get behind on the payments, you cannot avoid further liability by just giving the car back to the dealer or lender. Before you take such a step, get the lender to agree that you can deliver the car and be released from further liability (and do it in writing). Otherwise, be prepared for a most unpleasant situation: Most lenders who take cars that have not been paid for sell them at auction for very low prices, then subtract the costs of repossession and sale, giving you credit only for the amount left over. All too often, the amount credited to you will not pay the balance due on the note (remember that during the first half or more of the term of the note, you are paying far more interest than principal). Unless you pay that promptly, the lender may sue you or force you into bankruptcy.

If you are in danger of getting behind on your car payments and the lender will not let you return the car to clear the debt, first try to sell your car for enough to pay the note. If that does not work, then try to work with the lender or another lender to get a signature loan, so you can sell the car for what you can get and pay off the car note with the signature loan. Then you will only have to pay off the smaller loan, and you will not be in default. There may be other solutions available, so get help from financial and legal advisers.

See the subject Consuming, Credit and their Dangers before buying the car.



Home purchases

If you are buying a home, you should have a lawyer involved before you make the offer. Your offer to purchase will become the purchase and sale contract (typically called an "earnest money contract") if accepted and will determine various rights and obligations.

Even though most home purchases are agreed to using widely accepted printed forms, there are aspects of the contract you need to understand and may want to alter. There are also things that should be done before closing, and some real estate agents do not follow through to see that they are done. Also, if yours is a two-income family, you will want to use only one of the incomes in calculating what you can afford. Having put as much into the house as you will have, you do not want to lose it just because one of you has lost your job.

You may or may not save money buying a home from a friend or family member without going through a real estate broker or using a lawyer, but you may also find yourself in serious trouble. If you do choose that route, at least get a title insurance policy. And before closing, have the title company give you a title commitment, then study it and the documents listed as exceptions. Sellers usually pay for title insurance, but you would be wise to do it even if the seller won't.

The purchase of a home is the biggest investment most people will make. More than ever, you will want to have legal counsel helping you.



Home sales

Many laws have been enacted in recent years to create hidden liabilities for sellers of real estate. In my experience, title companies do a fairly good job of seeing that sellers comply with the requirements, but the title company does not assume the risk or liability if you fail to comply with some requirement placed on you. For example, you are required to provide a disclosure statement concerning the home's condition and may be required to provide a disclosure about lead paint. Legal counsel in making such sales is worthwhile.

Another hidden trap for sellers involves assumption sales. A buyer may pay for part of the purchase of your house by agreeing to pay your note on the house. You may receive money for your equity in the house or may simply be glad to escape the payments. However, unless the lender releases you in writing in a recordable document, you may find yourself being sued when your buyer fails to make the required payments and the lender has sold the house for less than the amount owed. The lender should have notified you, but if you didn't tell the lender where to find you, the notice may not reach you. In fact, be sure the note or deed of trust does not prohibit such sales or cause the entire note to become due because of the sale. A lender can approve such a sale despite the note or deed of trust, but be sure you get it in writing.

Assumption sales are legitimate, but the seller needs to be wise. Try to check the buyer's credit history. Be sure you inform the lender of your address and all changes. Keep track of the buyer's payments to be sure all payments are being made when due. You should have obtained a deed of trust to secure the buyer's assumption at the time of the sale. If the buyer falls behind in making a payment, you may want to make the payment, demand that amount from the buyer and if the buyer fails to pay you, foreclose your deed of trust lien. But consult a lawyer about how to proceed before you do anything. There are risks in foreclosures as well.



Title insurance

Title insurance protects buyers of real estate up to the amount of the policy limits (usually the purchase price) against defects specified in the policy and not listed as exceptions. Title defects are such things as superior title (the right to take the property from you), easements (like oil or gas pipelines that lower the value of your land or utilities that may increase the value but limit use of certain parts of the land), and deed restrictions (that limit your use of the property or what you can build on it).

Don't assume that just because you are to receive a title insurance policy, that is all the protection you need against title defects when you buy land or a home. Read the exclusions in the title insurance commitment and insurance policy. Anything listed as an exclusion becomes your risk, your problem. If your deed contains a statement that it is subject to anything of record affecting the land, that may significantly broaden the policy exclusions, and you may find that your policy protects you from very little.

Have a lawyer review the title insurance commitment and the documents listed in it, and be sure that any reservations or exceptions specified in your deed are limited to what you know about and are willing to live with. The money you spend for that could save many thousands down the road.



Deed restrictions

Deed restrictions and homeowners or condo associations can pose serious problems. If you purchase a house in a subdivision that has a homeowners association, the rules govering it will typically appear among the deed restrictions that the title insurance commitment lists. Don't assume you can live with them just because others do. Read them and see what happens if you fail to pay the dues. Insist on the seller's providing and then read the disclosure provided by the association.

If you plan to conduct some kind of business from your home, be sure you tell your lawyer, so the deed restrictions can be reviewed for possible prohibitions against such use. Moreover, you should check what city ordinances and state laws and regulations apply to any such business.



Home improvements

When you buy siding, roofing or home improvements of any kind, particularly from door-to-door or phone sales people, large organizations and fly-by-night operators, you will often be asked to sign a barrage of contracts and other documents. Beware of these. You may be putting your home in jeopardy.

Few people ever bother to read the documents -- until it is too late. Few realize that they may have signed a completion certificate, stating that the work has been completed, even though it has not even begun. Few realize that they are signing a promissory note, along with a deed of trust or similar document allowing nonjudicial sale of their house if they do not pay the note. Few realize that the person taking the note can go to a lender who will buy the note, and the right to foreclose, and may not be responsible for anything the contractor agrees to do. If the work done (or not done) by the contractor is not completed or not done well and the contractor will not live up to the contract, the homeowner may have no right to refuse to pay the note, and may risk losing his or her home if payments are not made when due.

Have a lawyer review and explain to you all of the documents before you sign any of them. The fees you pay to protect what is probably your single largest investment will be worth it.

Don't be afraid to shop around for the work. Home improvement scams are notorious. And ask who will actually be doing the work, whether it will be subcontracted out or done by the person or company soliciting you. If it will be subcontracted out, you might want to check on the subcontractor or be your own contractor and shop for the specific work you need done without paying the profit and other overhead charges the contractor adds in. Of course, you should also be ready for headaches that legitimate contractors suffer in managing the work they undertake.



"Standard" and blank form contracts

Did you know that experienced, careful lawyers rarely accept a contract as a "standard" (and therefore acceptable) form? They review all of them. While there are widely accepted printed forms and typical or usual forms, most of these are forms put out by certain organizations and tend to look out for members of the organization. As a form, no contract is above or beyond change, although you may find, for example, that you must accept the government's form in order to obtain an FHA or VA loan. But even then, there may be blanks to complete and information to be exchanged. It is unwise for anyone to sign such a contract without reviewing it carefully or having it reviewed by a lawyer.

Also, just because a document was "prepared by a lawyer" does not mean it will be good for you to sign it. Lawyers work for the people who hire them, and they prepare documents to protect and benefit those people. If a document is presented to you as "OK" because it was prepared by a lawyer, that is all the more reason for you to have your own lawyer look at it for you.



Contracts in general

You would do well to develop a practice of making sure you don't sign any contract until after you have read all of it (front and back) and understood it. Take the time and make the sales person wait if necessary.

Also don't sign one with blanks in it. Fill in blanks with "NA" or "Not Applicable". If something in the contract is optional and only effective when a box has been checked, you should cross out that provision. And be sure that you are immediately given a copy of everything you sign.

Ask about your right to cancel or rescind the contract, what the deadline for exercising your right is and how to do it, and be sure you receive that information in writing or write it down with the sales person. Having a witness is often a very good idea.



Wills

Did you know that if you die without a will (we call that "dying intestate"), Texas law provides one for you? But what it does may surprise you. For example, without a will, if you leave a spouse and also have children whose parent is not your spouse, Texas law says that your children and not your spouse will inherit your half of the community property (property you and your spouse acquired during marriage other than by inheritance, gift or for damages to your person). They will also inherit most of your separate property. That may totally defeat the desires and expectations you and your spouse have.

And to make matters worse, a guardianship may be needed for minor children to collect property they inherit. Guardianships will cost money throughout the children's minority and should be avoided if at all possible by proper planning. A properly prepared will with a trust for the children will solve those problems. If you have minor children, life insurance should also be payable to a trust (such as one set up in your will) instead of the children. A trust is a legal device by which one person (trustee) holds legal title for the benefit of another person (beneficiary).

While computer programs exist that will prepare a will for you, my advice is not to prepare a will yourself. There are things you may not realize are important (and therefore may leave out) and other things that you may put in that you should not. The computer programs that provide will forms are better than nothing and may write a valid will doing just what you want and no more. Unfortunately, however, you may never know if they did; only your children or other beneficiaries will know. Have a competent lawyer prepare a will for you. The fees for fairly simple wills will be more than justified by the savings to your estate and your beneficiaries after you die.



Living trusts

A living trust (a trust you set up during your life covering some or all of your property) may also solve the problems mentioned above, if properly prepared. But a living trust will not necessarily avoid probate, as many misleading ads have been touting. If you leave property not covered by the trust (and there are few people who will not do that), then you should have a will, and that will probably have to be probated. In addition, the cost of writing the living trust and of making sure all your property is covered by it may exceed the cost of a will and probate of the will.

Moreover, contrary to many misleading ads and persons who solicit elderly customers with outlandish promises, living trusts cannot save on estate taxes any more than wills can. They can include certain measures to minimize estate taxes, but the same measures can be included in wills. In deciding whether to use a living trust, you should consider such things as your age, impending or probable incapacity, your desire for privacy, and your ability to manage your own affairs in the future.

Living trusts make sense for people who will manage their property diligently to maintain the trust or who name trustees who will do so. They also make sense for someone who needs another person as trustee (such as an elderly person with a younger family member as trustee). The cost of probate, at least in Texas, should never be the reason for using a living trust, especially when the chances are so high that probate will be needed anyway.

For older persons with health problems and fixed incomes, living trusts make excellent sense. But don't try to prepare one yourself, and don't have someone who contacts you over the phone do it. Have a lawyer of your choosing do it and have a pourover will (one that dumps any additional estate into the trust) prepared as well.



Powers of attorney and other estate planning tools

Texas law (and that of many other states) provides a number of other estate planning tools that can be valuable but also carry risks. We have powers of attorney to handle your business affairs and property, powers of attorney for health care purposes, directives to physicians (sometimes called "living wills"), declarations of guardian before need (so you can choose who will be your guardian if one becomes necessary in the future), and declarations of guardians for minor children (usually done in your will but now possible without a will).

These can be valuable devices. For example, the directive to physicians can minimize prolonged suffering and waste by permitting a terminally ill person to die without being kept alive unnaturally. A power of attorney for health care can permit loving family members to make decisions for an incapacitated relative that the relative has expressed or would desire if able to decide. A power of attorney for financial and property matters can avoid the expense and delay inherent in a guardianship proceeding.

Be aware, however, that a power of attorney can be used by unscrupulous persons to steal money and other property, and it may not be possible to recover it. I prefer living trusts for general management purposes, although they can also be abused. The only real safeguard against abuse of such documents is to have an honest, caring person as the agent or attorney-in-fact or as the trustee.

If you have a family member living in an institution but not under a legal incapacity that has been declared by a judge, try to keep track of your relative's financial and property affairs. The opportunity for abuse in such situations is too great to ignore. You might want to discuss with an attorney having the relative create a living trust that requires agreement of the trustee to be amended or revoked. It could even require agreement of a designated beneficiary other than the relative.



Divorce and debts

If you are in a divorce or threatened with one, be aware that you remain liable on any debts or obligations that you incurred or signed for, even if your spouse agrees or is ordered to pay them. Lenders are not bound by the terms of the divorce decree and can try to collect from any spouse that is liable under the law. You may also be liable for income taxes owed on income earned during the marriage even if you didn't control or get to spend the income. The IRS has an "innocent spouse" rule to protect spouses who didn't know about income received by the other spouse from penalties, but it doesn't protect against liability for the taxes on the income, and the rule may be difficult to invoke in your particular case. Bankruptcy during a divorce may prevent the divorce from proceeding to a conclusion. Moreover, bankruptcy does not cancel child support or marital support (alimony), but be careful that your marital support payments have not been negotiated as part of the property settlement, because that may allow the bankruptcy court to discharge them.



Child support

If you have been divorced and your ex-spouse has custody of your children, you have a duty to support your children. Typically, the court has ordered you to pay child support in a certain amount at a certain time. Christians will have no objection to complying with this obligation, though sometimes they may have difficulty with the amount. The support is for the children and is ordered based on the consideration that the person receiving the support needs to buy food and clothing, provide a home, pay for utilities and telephone, drive the children to the doctor and other places, and incur numerous other expenses that having children entails.

Texas law now provides that child support payments be made through the Texas Child Support Disbursement Unit in San Antonio. In the past, child support orders required payments through either the district or county clerk's office or the Attorney General. Many divorcing couples object to using any government office. In my opinion, not using the services of the child support office is foolish. It will keep a record of payments that can be of benefit to both parties, and the slight delay in receiving checks is not a reason to go around the office. If you are obligated to pay support, use the office. If you are receiving support, insist that all payments go through the office.

If hard times strike and you are no longer going to be able to afford the child support you have been ordered to pay, you cannot reduce your child support obligation merely by getting your ex-spouse to agree to a reduction, even if it is written. To reduce child support, you must have the court order the reduction in a modification suit. Therefore, if you lose your job or have to take a pay cut, don't wait until all of your savings are spent and you have gotten well behind in support before you start the modification process. Instead,employ a lawyer right away to start the process.

If your ex-spouse owes you child support, don't let it mount up to many thousands of dollars that your ex-spouse will have difficulty paying. Start enforcement proceedings early. Child support is paid for the children's benefit, and you do not help your children by forcing them to live, for example, on food stamps because you are reluctant to make your ex-spouse live up to his or her obligation. Know the orders the court has entered. If there are withholding and medical support orders, have the district clerk send those to your ex-spouse's employer.



Investments

A lot of unwary and unwise folks are being cheated in making investments of hard-earned savings or inheritances and other money they will need in old age. Do not deal with brokers or investment promoters you don't know or who call you over the phone with a "great idea". Beware investments that are structured as general partnerships: You may be risking your entire estate.

Beware especially of investments that promise high rates of return. That is a favorite promise used by those who peddle what is called a "Ponzi" scheme. The "returns" from a "Ponzi" scheme consist of the money from the investor and money from later investors. The later investors may be friends and family of the early investors who are enticed by the appearance that the money the early investors are receiving proves the investment is good. Few investments enjoy high rates of return for long, and none of them will be guaranteed or promised by honest brokers or investment counselors. Check out all promises of return that seem too good to be true. Most likely, they are.

Church people have proven especially gullible and vulnerable to scam artists working from within their church or through ignorant church leadership. They are the proverbial wolves in sheep's clothing. Even if someone is in your church, check the investment out.

Watch out for anyone who is insulted because you want to check their "idea" or investment out. Indignation is a favorite tool to intimidate unwary people into doing something they would not otherwise do. Ask legitimate brokers and knowledgable investors what they know about a particular investment. See if it's listed in any publications you can find or known to government officials. The less you know or can learn, the more you should avoid it.

Finally, and this may be the best advice you receive: Never mortgage your house, your retirement or your life insurance for any risky investment. And almost all, if not all, high return investments qualify as risky. Invest only as much as you can safely afford to lose.



Prizes, "free" offers and other scams

AVOID all offers of prizes that require you to send money. They are merely a form of gambling and certainly do not represent good stewardship. Throw them away. Most, if not all, are scams. You will almost certainly never see the promised prize. A lot of these are aimed at older persons and may claim a charitable purpose or use a name deceptively similar to the name of a recognized charitable institution. The request for money is your clue. It tells you that what is promised is almost certainly not there.

Scams are conducted in as many ways as there are ways to communicate: mail, phone, person to person, email, you name it. The phrase "con man"; is shorthand for "confidence man", although many of them are female. Such people work by exuding sincerity, acting genuinely interested in you and your welfare and building your confidence in them personally. Typically they discourage you from checking out what they offer, they ask for money now, they promise whatever they think you want, they often cite deadlines for you to act that are incredibly short, they are often unknown to others you know (unless they are working your particular network of friends and acquaintances), and they frequently act insulted and angry when you question them very much.

Investigate anything that sounds too good to be true. Almost all such things are. Call the Better Business Bureau, the District Attorney, the Attorney General, the Postal Service and any other agency you can think of that might have heard of something. Check the Internet, and call your CPA or lawyer. You should be able to get reliable, detailed information on anything that's worth buying or any organization offering a prize.

Don't give personal, credit card or other information to someone over the phone unless you made the call and you know you are dealing with a legitimate business. Write down the person's name, the date and time and the date your merchandise should arrive. Dispute promptly charges to your credit card for merchandise not delivered or for anything you did not order.

Lately, we get a lot of calls from people who purport to have a "free" offer from someone claiming to be from the bank through which we have a particular credit card. There is nothing free about the offer; keep asking until you find the catch. If you don't find it, forget it, and if you do, forget it anyway. In all likelihood, you can do without whatever they offer or can find it cheaper or better by a little shopping on the Internet or even at stores or other businesses in your area.

In a public service consumer message under the heading "Know Fraud", first published several years ago, the Postal Service, FBI, FTC, SEC, AARP, and other organizations warned against unknown callers who (a) say you've won a prize but ask you to send money first, (b) say you have to act right away, (c) instruct you to wire money, (d) offer to have someone pick up a payment from your home, or (d) say they are law enforcement officers who will help you-- for a fee. The message cautions you to (1) check all unsolicited offers with your Better Business Bureau, (2) don't assume a friendly voice belongs to a friend, and (3) NEVER give your credit card, checking account or social security number to an unknown caller.

For more information on some of the scams and frauds you may confront, check out FTC's Consumer Protection, a website set up to help folks avoid being defrauded (as well as offering other tips). If you think you've been scammed or defrauded, you can file a complaint at that location. You can also call 1-877-382-4357 (a toll free number) or write Federal Trade Commission, CRC-240, 600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, D.C. 20580. You can also contact the Attorney General of your state, your District Attorney and your City Attorney. Your police department may also have an office or division to help victims of fraud. Your best protection, however, will be you! So be alert, skeptical, and investigate.



Lawyers: selecting and employing one

There are no foolproof ways to select a lawyer-- or a doctor, or any other professional for that matter. Each of us tends to handle certain things well and is not as expert or experienced in other things. We have good days and bad. From time to time, we have personal crises that get in the way of our work. Make an effort to check on the lawyer you are going to hire. Ask about the lawyer's experience in handling matters like yours (how many years, type of cases, etc.). Don't be afraid to ask the lawyer. A lawyer who won't tell you what you want to know may not be right for you.

If you can get recommendations, so much the better, but realize that those are often flawed. I've gotten calls from people who used a lawyer recommended by a friend or family, but the lawyer is not satisfying the person calling me. And as hard as I may try, I don't satisfy all of my clients. Keep your expectations realistic. Individual lawyers do not control the legislature, the courts or the legal system. Recognize that there are many variables in the process that will affect the outcome in a given situation.

When you solicit recommendations, try to find people who are more likely to have businesses or professions that require or associate with lawyers. CPAs, brokers, bank trust officers and investment bankers, for example, often work closely with a number of different types of lawyers. Test those recommendations by how much the person giving them can tell you about the attorney professionally and personally.

If you have a case pending already, you might try contacting the clerk of the court where the case is pending to see who practices in that court on a regular basis. You can also check online or a yellow page directory for a specialist in the area of law or who at least practices in that area. Be aware that a specialist may not be the best attorney for your situation. And specialists typically charge more than attorneys who without certifications as specialists but who may have the same or even better qualifications.

Also remember that when you engage a lawyer to represent you in a lawsuit, you give the lawyer broad authority to perform services reasonably necessary for that representation, including incurring certain costs. Complaining that you did not authorize the lawyer to take an action after a service has been performed and the lawyer has paid for the costs is not proper nor fair to the lawyer. If you want more control over costs, you need to communicate that to the lawyer, but in lawsuit situations, you can't expect much, because there are many things a lawyer is required to do, whether you agree with them or not. Also, if you ask the lawyer to communicate with you about spending money, you may also be charged for the time the lawyer takes to do that, and at a certain point your desire for control may hamstring the lawyer to such an extent that the lawyer will simply resign or withdraw.

Do not be intimidated by lawyers. Ask questions. If in your initial discussion with the lawyer, you and the lawyer do not seem well suited to one another, find another. You'll be doing both of you a favor.



Lawyers: warning signs

Lawyers vary in as many ways as personalities. In other words, you will find lawyers who are honest and those who are dishonest, lawyers who communicate well and those who don't, lawyers who care more for you as a person and those who don't. When selecting a lawyer, get information from those who have dealt with lawyers to find out what they have learned.

Many people have employed a lawyer who told the person, "I'll take your case for $2,000.00" without telling the person that was just an initial fee or deposit. As the case progressed, the lawyer would ask for additional amounts. All too often, such lawyers do not provide any accounting explaining their method for requesting the amounts or how they were applied to services and expenses. Many such lawyers do not even use written contracts or they use contracts that are woefully inadequate in explaining the relationship between the client and the lawyer. Avoid such lawyers.

A lawyer should ask you to enter into a written agreement concerning the lawyer's services and fees. If the lawyer says something like, "We don't need a contract; I trust you" or "Don't worry about fees now," then do. Having a written agreement protects both of you, and you should read it before signing it and again a few days later, so that you know what it says, what you can expect and what the lawyer expects.

Lawyers with any kind of experience know that no outcome is guaranteed in a disputed lawsuit and that clients often provide only those facts that favor them, sometimes without realizing that the fact finder will be hearing at least one other set of facts. If a lawyer promises a particular result, get that in writing. Unfortunately for too many, lawyers eager to get a particular case can exaggerate the merits of the case. If you have asked what outcome to expect, a lawyer should caution you that the outcome depends on so many variables that no result can be assured. Otherwise, you should shop around for the lawyer to represent you.

Beware of a lawyer who refuses to answer your questions, tells you "Just trust me", or asks "Don't you trust me?" Keep shopping. A lawyer should not be afraid to answer your questions, even if the answer is a simple "I don't know". A lawyer who gives you alternatives for possible outcomes isn't being evasive. That's being fair to you.



Locating a Christian lawyer

Locating a Christian lawyer depends to some extent on what being Christian means to you. If you seek a born-again, Bible-believing, committed servant of Jesus Christ, your search will be complicated by a number of facts: Very few lawyers or attorneys advertise themselves as Christians except perhaps in directories distributed among Christians. In addition, some lawyers who hold themselves out as Christians do so disingenuously. Others do so even though they have not committed their lives to Jesus Christ-- but they genuinely believe themselves to be Christian because they were raised by Christian parents, or attend Church sometimes, or they "believe in God", or they were born in America. Unfortunately, as with people in your church or other local fellowship, knowing whether an attorney is sincerely Christian will depend on your own knowledge of the lawyer, and that will require your taking time to get to know him or her personally.

In performing the search process, you should, of course, try the Internet and your Yellow pages. You might also talk with the pastor and other members of your church and other churches in your area; however, unless the individual giving you a suggestion knows the person's Christian walk well and you can test it, ask around to see what others know first-hand. You can also try organizations like The American Center for Law and Justice (1-800-296-4529) and the Christian Legal Society (703-642-1070), although any attorney listed with them or suggested by them may be only marginally Christian. I may be able to suggest someone in Houston, but I can't suggest anyone elsewhere.

Finally, if you have an appropriate case, you may receive help from the Christian Law Association. It appears that CLA limits its services to those under attack for their beliefs, not those experiencing other types of legal matters and issues, but they may be able to suggest a Christian lawyer to help you.



Lawyers' fees

Ask about fees: Even in contingent fee cases (such as personal injuries), you will be paying the fees out of the money or property you are to receive. Sometimes a lawyer will quote a low fee for a fixed type of work, but if the work goes beyond what the fee covers (and often it will), the lawyer's hourly fee could make the total more expensive than using another lawyer who charges strictly on an hourly fee that is much lower.

Ask what a lawyer's flat fee covers, how much the lawyer's hourly fee is, how much of a retainer the lawyer requires, whether the retainer is nonrefundable (in effect a minimum fee) or merely a deposit (refundable to the extent it exceeds fees and expenses). Ask about the work covered by a flat fee: for example, what a will, trust or other document will contain.

Lawyer's fees vary greatly, depending on such factors as the lawyer's expertise (experience and knowledge) in the particular area of law, the lawyer's or law firm's fee schedule, the complexity (including the risks involved), and the work that the lawyer typically puts into the matter. Lawyers also have different ways they like to charge for certain types of services they provide. Some charge a flat or fixed fee for a particular service and some charge a fee based on how much time the lawyer actually spends on a matter. In personal injury and a rare probate, a lawyer may charge a percentage of what is collected. If the fee is based on the time a lawyer spends, ask if the lawyer charges for actual time or for the next highest tenth, quarter or half hour. Many of us use computer programs that keep track of the time to the second and can bill to that precision.

CAVEAT: The U.S. Supreme Court decided a few years ago that the contingent fee paid to an attorney out of the amount collected by a claimant is income taxable to the claimant. In fact, even if you pay the attorney's fee out of pocket, any attorney's fee awarded to you by a court or agreed to in a settlement may be taxed to you to the extent the fee is paid. Of course, you may be able to deduct what you paid, but you would have to confirm that with a tax lawyer or CPA.



Consuming, credit and their dangers

Far too many Christians have succumbed to the treacherous deceits of our modern culture. We are enticed into rampant consumption. We are led to believe that we need the newest, fastest, smoothest, most powerful, most efficient, most this and latest that. We are told that we "deserve it" or we're "worth it" when it comes to particularly self-indulgent expenditures. We are offered credit cards with incredibly low finance charges for a brief period, usually aimed at some traditional buying period like Christmas.

We are not told that the low finance charge will zoom skyward if we fail to pay on time or that a promised "fixed" rate can be replaced by a higher "fixed" rate. None of these ads that promote our spending warn us of the consequences of over-spending: the short period of pleasure that the new purchase will provide, the stress it puts on the family, the debts that can't be met, the savings that won't be available when a genuine emergency arises.

In the 19th century, consumption was the name given a wasting disease we now know as tuberculosis. It still refers to a wasting disease; just a different one. But there is a cure and preventive medicine:

Before you buy anything, ask if you can live without it at least another month, two months, six months. If so, don't buy it. You will find that you can do without most of what TV, radio and billboard ads tell us is really essential and will improve our lives. Teach your children the same lesson. And when you do buy, don't do it unless you've saved the full price and can pay cash.

Only in genuine emergencies or when you have more than enough saved should you use the credit card. The only two exceptions to that rule would be a home and a car, and even then the payments should be well within the means of the primary provider. Neither a home nor a car should require both incomes in a two-income family. If you can't pay cash, shop for a low price. For example, it is a myth that a new car will save money over a used car in the long run. Wisely bought, a used car saves money over a new car almost every time. Forget appearances, what your neighbors or friends will say. Humble youself in the sight of YHWH, and buy only what YHWH would approve.

Christians taking bankruptcy are poor witnesses. They are even worse stewards of what YHWH has given us. What a Christian possesses belongs to YHWH, and we should ask YHWH about all purchases that are not necessities, and it wouldn't hurt to ask about those from time to time. And owe no one anything but love.

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*YHWH or YHVH is the English representation of the four Hebrew letters that spell the name of the God of the Bible, the one true, living God worshipped by Jews and Christians. YHWH was the name by which he identified himself to Moses in Ex. 3:14. According to references that I've read, the exact pronunciation of YHWH's name was lost in antiquity. After much study, I prefer to pronounce the name "Yahu-wah" (the "h" being aspirated as in "hay", emphasis on the last syllable), but the generally accepted pronounciation in common English is "Yah-weh" or "Yah-way". Some translations of the Bible, such as the KJV and NASB, substitute "the LORD" for his name, following a practice begun before Jesus' birth.

YHWH revealed himself in various ways to the children of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. He also revealed himself in and through his son Jesus Christ and acts, among other ways, in and through Christians by the Holy Spirit. Because the word "God" is being used today to designate all kinds of human inventions, although accepted for centuries in English as a name for YHWH, I prefer to use the name that YHWH chose for himself rather than "God" or "the LORD" as I did in early versions of my writings. Please read The Name of the One True, Living God for a fuller discussion.

Remember who He is and whose you are


8.Nov.1999 rev. 20.May.2010