One of my father’s favorite sayings is, “They have an ounce of authority.” What the saying encompasses is individuals who are relatively low-level employees but who have a sufficient amount of authority to stand in the way of what you are attempting to achieve. In my practice of law, the “ounce of authority” concept has become one of my favored ways of summarizing the issue with which a client is presented.
A client might come to me and ask how they go about administering a deceased family member’s estate. With most estates, the administration of the estate is fairly straightforward. The problem is, life is not always as simply as it should be.
I have personally administered a large number of estates, either serving in the role of guardian for an incapacitated person or the executor/administrator of a deceased person’s estate. In the course of my serving in these roles, I have visited numerous banks attempting to accomplish some goal—closing an account, opening an account, attempting to find values of accounts. I have dealt with many bank employees.
Based upon my experiences, before I go to a bank, I tell myself that what I am trying to accomplish might take several trips to the bank. This is my way of bracing myself for the inevitable roadblocks that will be thrown in my way. Ironically, when you enter many banks, a greeter will ask, “How my I help you today?”
I’m never quite sure why they ask this question, because the minute you begin to ask them for help, they throw up roadblocks. As someone who knows a good amount about the law governing estates, I am often familiar with the issues the bank employee is raising, and I typically have documents with me that can overcome their questions or objections. But just because you are right and just because you have the proper documents with you, doesn’t mean you are going to be able to accomplish the things you need to accomplish.
This is the “ounce of authority” dilemma. It doesn’t matter if you are right, what matters is the person who has the authority believes you are right, and in order to get to that point, the person frequently needs to work the issue out in their own head.
For instance, I recently went to the bank to close out a small account titled in the name of a decedent. I am the administrator of the decedent’s estate. I had all the proper paperwork. This was my third trip to the same bank attempting to close out this account. I had provided the paperwork showing I was the administrator of the estate to the bank many months prior to my recent visit. The bank statements for the account had been coming to my office for months.
It took me an hour at the bank to close out the account. Several times, the bank employee questioned whether I had the proper paperwork. The paperwork had to be faxed to the estate department of the bank and the bank’s manager had to be consulted multiple times. After an hour, I left the bank with the promise that a check would be mailed to my office closing the account. I still have not received the check.
As I sat there, I simply allowed the bank employees to work the issues out amongst themselves. They would frequently make misstatements of law, but I simply sat there and waited for them to resolve the conflicts they had. In my numerous dealing with banks, I have learned that if I attempt to correct them, they only view my assistance with skepticism, sometimes seeking to correct what I say with their own incorrect statements of the law.
I often wonder what my clients would be thinking in situations such as these. I may have told the client the proper way to accomplish a goal, but I cannot account for the misconceptions of the law other people harbor, people with an ounce of authority. And the problem for me is, the ounce of authority person is standing in the way of my client, so my client thinks my advice is incorrect because they can’t accomplish the thing they want to accomplish. My point is, as with all things in life, being right doesn’t always mean you get what you want. You have to keep trying and persevere.