A Personal Experience With The American Justice System
Much has been written, and will be written, about the differences between the United States and Europe. One of Romney’s arguments against Obama is the President’s goal of making the US “similar” to Europe. The fact that this argument is very popular among the American electorate demonstrates how Europe is understood not only as different, but also as negative.
In any case, I want to tell a personal experience that might be useful if you ever find yourself in a similar situation as I describe below.
Before starting, it is useful to remember that there are basically two types of Law:
First, the one implemented by the Romans and re-instituted by Napoleon, which is based on codes within which a judge operates and within which the judge cannot act beyond the established rules. The second system is called Common Law, born in England in the Middle Ages, which delegates responsibility to the judge for making a judgment based on sentences that have been given in previous cases.
The US uses Common Law with some local adaptations such as electing the position of prosecutor rather than being the result of a judicial career, similar to a chief of police, who is also elected.
The truth is that the proliferation of lawyers and their high-level income has no comparison with any other country in the world.
For example, in the US a lawyer can represent a client not only by charging a fee, but also by receiving part of the eventual financial benefits of the outcome of the lawsuit. The mother of a friend of mine died because she was given a wrong transfusion. The lawyer launched a lawsuit with a compensation of 50% of the awarded sum that the jury would set.
Therefore the profession of a lawyer, according to the statistics of the Internal Revenue Service (the United States fiscal system), is one of the most profitable of the country. Within this frame I will tell you my experience.
My first wife Colette passed away in December 2008. Six years before she had bought investment funds exclusively reserved for foreigners not living in the US. We had a checking account in the Chase Manhattan Bank where my income from my work with the UN was also deposited. With the fall of the stock market we decided that in order to liquidate the investment fund, we would wait for the market to return to its previous level, but Colette died before this happened.
In the fall of 2009 I wrote to the bank – that had in the meantime been transformed into Citibank – to ask for the liquidation of the investment. I requested the sum – initially $50,000, which had now fallen to $34,000 – to be transferred to the checking account of the Tanguieta Hospital, a missionary nutrition and child center in the north of Benin where I had donated a pediatric department in Colette’s name. Each year I send 11 tons of food for the more than one thousand malnourished children who are in this way saved from death.
Robert De Marco, a polite functionary of Citibank, answered my request by urging me to prove that I was Colette’s heir, in order to be able to proceed with my request. I sent him a notarized document, signed before two witnesses, containing Colette’s last wishes, amongst them declaring me as her sole heir. The document had to be officially translated and certified by a courthouse with the “Apostille of the Hague Accords”, that is, a court document declaring that the notary in question exists, the signature is his, etc.
From then on, a dialogue started that would have been a delight for Kafka. Each time that De Marco got back to me, he would ask for more legalized documents, officially translated and certified with apostilles thus taking a considerable amount of time and costs: death certificate, residence certificate, my CV, declarations from my former superiors in the UN confirming that I, in fact worked for them, declarations that neither Colette nor I were residents in the US, that we did not have any properties in the country. All of this during a whole year of useless exchange of information.
Finally, De Marco, who was acting according to the directives of the legal department of the bank, told me that he needed a sentence from an Italian court that would declare me as the sole heir of Colette.
Obviously, the Rome Court refused the request. Italian justice could only intervene if someone would contest me in relation to Colette’s will. In such a case they would then give a sentence. The existence of a notarized document, where Colette’s last wishes are expressed and signed by witnesses, is what the Italian law would ask for in these cases.
With my lawyer, we thought of opening a case of someone contesting against me, so we could obtain the sentence that the bank was asking for. Nevertheless, we thought that the system is so saturated that the sentence would take a considerable amount of time. Should we impregnate the system with more nonsense just to please an American bank? Plus, we would be facing at least 3 years and a minimum of 5,000 euros in costs.
Finally, I decided to go to New York myself and meet Mr. De Marco in person to try to understand what it is that I needed to do. He explained that he felt very embarrassed, but he could only do as told by the legal department. Therefore I asked to speak with that department.
De Marco tried to coordinate a meeting, but their answer was that they would only talk with a lawyer; therefore I should send my lawyer. De Marco suggested that I should visit the New York Court and see what they could do so that I could extend the document requested by the bank in a short time. De Marco added that he had found me a lawyer who could take on my case by request of my great friend Marco Napoli – former director of IPS within the United Nations who had intervened to help me. For this the lawyer expected a compensation of $1000. De Marco found that asking that sum to recuperate a capital of $34,000 was absurd.
I went to the imposing courthouse building together with the very nice IPS Office Director in the UN, Thalif Deen to figure out what to do. We could only speak to a public relations office. The attendant very politely informed me that:
a) Judges only speak with lawyers and I could not do any consultation without one;
b) He was sure that this was a complex issue and he recommended me to find a lawyer before leaving the country
He could not recommend one but only give me the telephone number of the New York Lawyers Association. I explained to him that I was leaving the next morning and I asked him to tell me at least how to understand which lawyers dealt with similar cases in court.
He explained that this was not possible, but in the same building there was an office that informed the lawyers. If I had a lawyer he could go to this office and get the information I needed. He thought it was very logical my objection that I could not hire a lawyer to look for another lawyer, but he told me that there was nothing he could do. I asked him as a last favor to tell me in which legal terms my case was set.
He wrote it down on a paper and from there I went directly to the above-mentioned office, where I encountered a very large African American lady, with whom I became friends. I told her I was a journalist and that I was doing a study on inheritance cases and wanted to interview specialized lawyers. I showed her the piece of paper that I got from the other office with the description of the case under study. The woman opened her computer and wrote down five names of lawyers with their addresses and telephone numbers.
We came out of the office it was already lunchtime. There was very little time. I called the five lawyers and the firm that seemed the most adequate to me was Pavia & Harcourt, on Madison Avenue.
I went there and the very polite Pavia, accompanied by an equally polite Amoroso, listened to my case and explained to me the difference between a liquidation of an inheritance in Italy and in the United States, where the figure of notary as an important official basically does not exist. Therefore it is the court that has to rule according to the documents presented.
They introduced me to their junior partner, the splendid Cindy Belviso, who was going to deal with my case since it was a simple matter so that the costs would not be so high due to the fact that the inheritance was entirely destined to charity. I gave them a check of $2,500 and I left with a very positive feeling.
Since then, another dialogue that would have been the joy of Kafka started. An incredible amount of information needed to be sent, all officially translated and certified with Apsotille. Among them, a declaration of someone who declared that they knew me for a number of years; all of this in several copies based on esoteric juridical logic. For example, since in my marriage certificate it was stated that I married for a second time I had to declare that the name and surname of my new partner was not a pseudonym of the deceased Colette, even though I sent five copies of her death certificate issued by the municipality. I can only say that between official translations, notary certifications, notarized documents, Apostilles of The Hague Accord on the notary certifications,etc., I spent more than 2,000 euros, not to mention the amount of time spent on these formalities.
At a certain point, the total fee reached $10,000 and the case had not yet been concluded. I wrote a letter to the firm saying that this was far more expensive than what I had understood from our meeting. Pavia answered me that the cost of a court proceeding was also $10,000 regardless if it concerned a minor quantity, such as in my case, or a higher quantity, and that we were practically at the end of our case.
Finally, a few weeks ago the court ruled positively. Neither was there any opposition. The bank delivered to Pavia a check for the value of $46,000, which was the value of that day of the investment fund that my beloved Colette opened ten years ago. Of that amount, Pavia’s firm deducted $15,000 in fees.
Before this, I wrote them if they could make a contribution to the Tanguieta Hospital out the sum that they deducted from Colette’s inheritance. Their answer was that the firm makes each year a series of contributions to a list of beneficiaries and that their quota of donations had already been reached.
From all of this, an issue is raised: Since Colette was not a US citizen and did not live in the US but in Italy, as it was clear to the bank by issuing the investment funds that could only be issued to foreigners, (and to add that the bank was not even physically located in the US but in the Caribbean) why is it that the law applied is that of the US and not the law of the country of residence of the foreigner where furthermore, the bank sent trimester reports to Rome?
The fact is that US laws apply to everything related to the United States, even if it is concerning non-US citizens living in another country.
Another more obvious case: The book about IPS that has just been released by Amazon.
Amazon offers to share the income according to the sum that the author pays to enter the system. The bigger the sum, the bigger the percentage received by the author. This was set after a study that concluded that the majority of the books published by their own authors sell less than 150 copies. In my case, I paid the maximum amount; obtaining 60% of the quota of the income, and 40% would stay with Amazon.
This book was entirely made outside the US and it is basically being sold outside of the US. Regardless of this fact I now discovered that I must pay 32% of my income in taxes while Amazon does not pay anything. Now I ask myself, why does a product that was not produced in the US and is sold outside of that country have to pay taxes to the US fiscal system?
The moral of the story: if you have to do something that is even just obliquely related with the United States, you can forget about your national legislation or the fiscal system of your country because you become a US citizen without having any of the advantages but all of the inconveniences.
Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.