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Colorado "Balloon Boy" Presents Cautionary Tale

Author: John Corcoran
December, 2009 Issue

CNN interrupted its sleepy, Thursday morning news coverage in mid-October to bring breaking news: A homemade balloon shaped like a UFO, which supposedly had a 6-year-old boy inside, had become untethered from its backyard moorings and was fast drifting away. For the next several hours, a nationwide audience watched in rapt attention as the perfectly made-for-TV incident was broadcast live. Of course, it turned out it was all a little too perfectly made for TV when the Larimer County Sheriff later determined the whole incident to be a hoax, allegedly concocted by the father for publicity.

Assuming the whole incident was made up, what can the Colorado balloon boy incident teach us about our own lives? If the allegations are true, the man deserves the condemnation he’s received for deceiving law enforcement and the public and for wasting law enforcement resources. But the incident also highlights a secondary lesson: the importance of incorporating and relying on professionals in modern life.

The initial goal, aside from the hoax, was innocent enough—to generate publicity for a reality TV show. However, what if, instead of trying to generate publicity on his own, he’d hired a professional PR firm or a publicist? What if he had a good relationship with an attorney he could call and ask about the legal consequences of pulling such a stunt? Certainly, these professionals would have advised him to choose another course of conduct, and maybe they could have come up with another way of generating the publicity he desired.

Life is increasingly complex in 21st century America. Businesses, professionals and individuals need help to get by day-by-day. From taxes to health care to running a business, it’s important to rely on professional help and expertise not just to get ahead, but to keep from falling behind.

As an attorney, I see the consequences of failing to consult professionals and attempting to “go it alone” all too often. The lesson of the Colorado balloon boy is one I’ve tried to impart on many clients: Don’t be afraid to hire a professional. Bringing in experts is the cost of doing business, not a luxury to be avoided at all costs. Don’t skimp a few dollars up front at the risk of major litigation costs when things go awry. Many, if not most, of lawyers’ clients result from some sort of screw-up that could have been avoided by hiring a lawyer, an accountant, a tax attorney, a real estate agent or some other professional.

As the balloon boy incident showed, the consequences of going it alone can be severe. Not too long ago, I was in bankruptcy court when I observed a man attempting to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy for himself and his wife—a process that, since the 2005 bankruptcy law overhaul, has become amazingly complex even for attorneys. In his bankruptcy papers, he attempted to include two homes, the one he was living in and a rental, under one “primary residence” exemption. His primary residence was under water. The rental had approximately $200,000 in equity, approximately $75,000 of which he could have retained had it been his primary residence.

The bankruptcy trustee asked the man whether he was living in the rental. In response, the man said he wasn’t living in the rental, but that he was “thinking about moving” into it and, therefore, he thought it should be considered a primary residence.

If the man had hired a bankruptcy attorney, that attorney could have advised him that he could only choose one primary residence, and that it would be pointless to choose his current residence because it had zero equity. If the man was living in the rental at the time of his bankruptcy filing, he could have used it for his primary residence exemption. So, by not hiring a bankruptcy attorney, he saved himself $2,500 and lost a $75,000 exclusion—the amount he and his wife could have sheltered in bankruptcy had he used the rental for his primary residence exemption. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish.

Because the balloon boy’s father didn’t consult professionals and chose to take the matter into his own hands, the man is now at risk of being charged with a crime, maybe losing custody of his children, and having to reimburse the law enforcement costs. By the time the whole ordeal is over, he may also have to file bankruptcy, given how expensive the incident must have been.

The balloon boy incident is a cautionary tale. Don’t attempt to go it alone. Consult trusted professionals whose expertise will save you time, money and hassle. A small amount of prevention can truly avoid the need for a far more expensive cure.
 
John Corcoran is an attorney with Plastiras & Terrizzi in San Rafael. You can reach him at (415) 472-8100 x211 or jcorcoran@ptlegal.com.

 

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