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Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Steve Cole reports: A few years ago, Leanna and I purchased a vacant commercial lot, then decided not to build a new building on it. We put the lot up for sale, and finally found a buyer as the economy improved. Guided by a good real estate agent, the offer-counter-offer process went quickly and a deal was struck. Then, we hit a snag.

Whenever a piece of real estate is sold, the actual transaction is handled by a title company, which does all the paperwork, registers the deed, handles the money, and makes sure that everyone gets paid. They also do a lot of background stuff nobody notices, like making sure the seller actually owns the property and that the buyer isn't going to face future claims from somebody. One of the things they do is to check and see if the seller has any judgments against him, meaning he has an unpaid debt that the court has certified. That judgment has to be paid before the deal can go through.

Now, I don't have any unpaid debts; it's just the way I run my life. However, somebody with a similar name does, and whenever I do something, I run into his old judgments. I had thought that mess was behind me since he passed away in 2008 and his estate was closed in 2010, making all judgments against him void.

In this case, the woman who sued "the other Steve Cole" didn't know anything but his name, so her judgment has no middle name, no driver's license number, no social security number, no business license number. She's also 100 miles away and was unaware of his death. She still wants (and deserves) her money but I'm not the one to pay her. If he owed her $10 I might just to be a kind person, but not several thousand dollars.

So, here are a few notes, thoughts, facts, and bits of information you may want to be aware of.

1. Please pay your debts before they go to judgment and don't think that old judgments get forgotten. They don't. They will haunt you to the end of your life.

2. If somebody with a similar name has a judgment against him and it screws up a real estate or other deal, don't panic. Have the title company explain to you what has to happen to get the matter cleared. Then get it cleared. It's not that complicated.

3. You're not the first or only person this has happened to. The title company has seen it before and knows how to fix it. Basically, you sign an affidavit that you aren't the guy named in the judgment. If it turns out you are lying and you ARE that guy, you're going to be a whole heap of trouble (and in prison). If it isn't you, you don't have a problem.

4. It would be cleaner to get the judgment clarified to prove that it's not you so that this doesn't happen again and again every time you do anything. That isn't always easy, but sometimes it is. In one case I just called the guy who had sued "the other Steve Cole" and he amended his judgment to make sure it wasn't going to show up on my credit record.

5. Don't think it doesn't apply to you. Sometime when you are old your house will be sold (either by your estate or when you move to a retirement home) and it will be harder to clean up then. The executor of your estate may not know it's not your debt and may take money away from your heirs and pay the bill. Even without a house, you still have an estate and any judgments against you or against someone with a similar name will surface.

6. It might be worth a few bucks every 10 years to have a title company run a check to make sure there are no judgments against people with a similar name and get them cleared up while you're young and healthy and not busy.

7. The worst possible scenario is that the person owed the money will reject the affidavit and try to scare you into paying somebody else's judgment to clear your name. Don't let yourself be bullied. Ask your lawyer to explain to the person owed the money that they're abusing the legal process and can get in a lot of trouble. Worse case scenario: they drag you into court where you simply show you're not the one who owes the money and they get into trouble with the judge for wasting your time (and the judge's time).

8. If you are owed judgments, check every few months to make sure the person who owes you is still alive and if you cannot find them, scan the local records for death certificates. If someone who owes you money dies, be quick to file a claim with the estate. If it's a large amount, you might want to scan the records every month.

9. If you are aware of people in your area with similar names, make friendly contact sometime and keep a file folder with information about them, especially if anything bad comes of it. If someone calls you asking for money owed by somebody with a similar name (deadbeats often have unlisted phone numbers; you, being honest, are easy to find), be sure to keep a record of who they are. If you can help them find the real deadbeat, it may save you trouble later. At least make them aware that there are two or more people with similar names and ask them to make clear when they file a lawsuit that it is not you!

10. Nothing in your life is as important as keeping your good name clean, clear of entanglements, and without anybody else's judgments attached to it.