Quarterly Legal Tips

Jennifer A. Williams, one of our attorneys licensed to practice in both Minnesota and Montana, shared the following tips in an article appearing in The Ekalaka Eagle on December 1, 2017. Her practice primarily focuses on the areas of real estate, oil and gas, water law, wills, probate, court disputes, criminal law (prosecution and defense) and mental health law.


In providing legal services to Eastern Montana, I find that it is essential to keep the public up-to-date on the legal trends in the area and some of the basic information about the legal system. This first article includes general information about what a lawyer is, when you should contact a lawyer, and why you need a lawyer.

What is a lawyer?

A lawyer is a licensed professional who advises and represents people and businesses in legal matters. Lawyers are specifically trained on how to interpret statutes, analyze case law, interpret documents (ex. contracts and leases), effectively argue in court proceedings on a client’s behalf, and manage a number of client legal concerns. The amount of education and testing that goes into becoming a lawyer is long, expensive, and, at times, exhausting. Lawyers are also subject to continuing education throughout their career, keeping them up-to-date on the ever-evolving legal system, as well as, providing skills training.

Lawyers come in all shapes, sizes, and disciplines. Some lawyers choose to specialize in one area or another. Some don’t and can effectively discuss client issues in a wide range of subjects. Neither way is wrong or unwise. It is simply the path the lawyer chooses to take.

When do you need a lawyer?

According to the American Bar Association’s website, the most common situations where you need a lawyer are when:

  • You are charged or arrested for a crime;
  • You are served with documents related to a legal proceeding or lawsuit;
  • You are involved in a serious accident causing personal injury or property damage;
  • If there is a change or pending change in family status, such as divorce, birth, adoption, or death; and
  • If there is a change or pending change in financial status, such as filing for bankruptcy or getting or losing valuable personal property or real estate.

These are probably the most crucial times in a person’s life when legal counsel is essential. These events can be overwhelming and confusing for people not familiar with the legal system. I can almost guarantee that one or more of these events will occur in your lifetime and you need a competent legal professional to assist you with them. Why not plan ahead?

You need a lawyer before it’s “too late” or you “get in trouble.”

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they’ll call me “if [I] get into trouble,” I would be a rich woman living in a big log house with three fireplaces and a barn filled with horses. (Hey one can dream, right?) The fact of the matter is that people think they only need a lawyer when things go astray. WRONG. The best time to get a lawyer is before things go haywire. The best time is now. Planning ahead saves you time and money when something happens.

I always recommend that you plan ahead of a life-event and not scramble to find a lawyer when your situation turns drastic. Now is the time to plan ahead. Now is the time to make sure you are prepared if something should happen to you or a loved one. The legal system can be a confusing and frustrating place to manage. Lawyers effectively maneuver through the muddy waters of the legal system, so you don’t have to do it alone.

For example:

Hypothetical Scenario 1: Mr. X meets with his lawyer on how to transfer his ranch and other assets to his children and grandchildren upon his death. This results in a hypothetical cost of $5,000.00. Mr. X dies and children come into title as Mr. X instructed. The instructions were clearly written through the appropriate legal documents. The final transfer costing little (to nothing) for his children because he planned ahead.

-or-

Hypothetical Scenario 2: Mr. X is unmarried but he has children under the age of 18. (Ignore the spouse factor in this scenario). Mr. X feels he will live to a ripe old age and that his children will hammer it all out once he’s gone. He fails to plan ahead for a catastrophic event. Mr. X’s tractor tips over in the field and he is killed, leaving his children without a guardian. Because Mr. X’s children are minors and he has not planned ahead by naming a custodian or guardian for them, they are sent to live with next of kin – who happens to be a sibling whom Mr. X hasn’t spoken to for 15 years. Sibling also gets control of Mr. X’s land and funds as guardian to the children, since they inherit it in trust until they’re 18. Sibling gambles it all away and there is nothing left to provide for the children. Children turn 18 and sue Sibling for lost funds, costs tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees with no guarantee of success in recuperating the money.

Now, Scenario 2 seems extreme, but unfortunately, IT HAPPENS. In thinking about your life, which scenario would you rather have? Wouldn’t you want to plan ahead?

Jennifer A. Williams, is an Associate Attorney for MacMillan, Wallace & Athanases, PLLC. She can be reached at (406) 489-1269 or jawilliams@mwalaw.us should you have any questions regarding this article.

* DISCLAIMER: This article is for general informational purposes only. In no way shall this article constitute legal advice or substitution for legal counsel – and should not be relied upon as such. The information contained in this article is not promised to reflect the most current legal developments; accordingly, information found here is not promised or guaranteed to be correct or complete. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, nothing provided in this article should be used as a substitute for advice of competent counsel.