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Do I Need a Lawyer for an Informal Probate?

After a loved one dies, one of the tasks is administering your loved one’s estate. You want to make a smart decision and not give everything to lawyers or the government. I understand. But, here’s the thing. Sometimes you can do it just fine without a lawyer. But sometimes things go wrong. And it’s hard for you (as a non-attorney) to know ahead of time whether you need a lawyer. In asking “Do I need a lawyer for an informal probate?”, consider the case of the Estate of Rogers, which was decided in 2013.

The short version of that case is as follows:

On June 22, 2006, Marion Rogers (Decedent) passed away. He was survived by a husband, Dolores Rogers (Dolores), and three children: Nancy, Gary, and Candace. In September, 2007, Gary filed an application to appoint himself personal representative of the estate and to probate the estate through intestate proceedings. He did this without using a lawyer. Nancy, Candace and Dolores all waived their rights to apply as personal representative and consented to the appointment of Gary. On February 12, 2010 Gary filed a closing statement seeking to close the probate estate. Nancy then filed an Objection and requested a hearing. Nancy also filed a Petition for Removal and Surcharge of Gary as personal representative. A hearing was held in September 2011, and the probate court heard testimony from Nancy, Candace, Gary, and Nancy’s husband.

Note: What could have taken one year and not involved the courts has now blown up. Five years later after their loved one’s death, the family is fighting in court. The trial court eventually dismissed Nancy’s Petition for Removal and Surcharge of the personal representative. And that was eventually upheld by the appellate court. But that’s not the issue. This family spent lots of money on lawyers to fight over the administration of this estate. In hindsight, it would have been much better for them to spend $8,000 $10,000 to have a lawyer handle the estate administration for them. (And that’s probably a high estimate for a really simple probate.)

Moral of the story: Get a lawyer to help you.

At Magellan Law, we have perfected the administration of informal probates. We’ll make sure your loved one’s estate gets processed quickly, efficiently, and correctly … so you can sleep at night knowing that you won’t become like the story above and get served with a lawsuit 5 years after your loved one’s death.

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Trustee Doesn’t Want to Sell the House

We get this a lot: Mom or dad just died. House was in a trust. Now your brother or sister is in charge of the trust (as the trustee). The trustee doesn’t want to sell the house or distribute anything. What are you (the beneficiary) supposed to do? Here’s a checklist.

  1. Do you have a copy of the trust? (I’m not talking about a Certificate of Trust, or a deed to the house. I mean the actual 25 pages or more long trust document.) If you don’t have a copy of the trust, ask for one. If the trustee refuses to give you a copy of the trust, contact an attorney to figure out how to get a copy.
  2. Have a trust litigation attorney read the trust document and determine what is supposed to happen.
  3. Assuming the trust says the house gets sold and you are entitled to a share of trust property, how long has it been? What is in the house? If you have valuable antiques or artwork or collectibles, are those getting inventoried?  Is the house secured? A trust attorney can help you with these details and figure out what specifically needs to happen. In a very simple case, if there is nothing of value in the house, the contents can be quickly liquidated (or donated), the house cleaned up, and the house listed for sale within a month or two. Sometimes, however, it can take longer. It shouldn’t take 6 months in most cases to clean out a house and list it for sale. One year is too long (in most cases).
  4. Figure out if there’s a “No Contest Clause” in the trust. These can be danger, as discussed in a prior blog. You may need to take certain precautions before filing something with the court.
  5. Discuss the next steps with your lawyer. If there is a No Contest Clause, he or she might file a Petition for Declaratory Judgment to get the court to determine that you won’t be “contesting the trust” by seeking to get a new trustee. There are basically two options. First, you can try to get the court to order the trustee to do what is needed. However, sometimes it’s just quicker in the long run to get a more responsible person appointed as trustee. If you decide that’s the way to go, have your trust litigation lawyer prepare and file a Petition to Remove Trustee and Appoint Successor Trustee.

If the trustee is also living in the house, your lawyer will help you file an eviction (called an Unlawful Detainer). This takes longer than you might like. But generally, you can get the person removed within 45 to 60 days.

If you have any questions, call us for a free consultation. We’re here to help!

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If No Contest Clause, Use a Declaratory Judgment

A No Contest Clause basically says “If anyone contests what I said in this document, they don’t get anything.” The problem with a No Contest Clause is that no one knows what a “contest” is. If the executor or trustee isn’t doing his or her job, and you file something with the court complaining about that, is that a “contest”? Well, it might be. Below is a short discussion on how to use a Petition for Declaratory Judgment to battle a No Contest Clause.

Allegations of trustee misconduct are too common from our experience. This even happens in the case of a celebrity, such as the allegations that Michael Crichton’s widow mishandled the trust. When should you use a Petition for Declaratory Judgment? Let’s say you’re dealing with Charlie Brown’s parents’ trust. It says that after Mr. and Mrs. Brown die, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, Sally, is to become the successor trustee. And let’s say that Sally is now the trustee. The trust contains a No Contest Clause. Sally is refusing to do certain things (like selling the house, providing an accounting, treating the beneficiaries equally). If Charlie goes to court and make all of these claims, and then asks that Sally be removed as trustee, Charlie could be violating the clause (because the trust named Sally to be trustee). However, Charlie could still do this and get away with it if he has “probable cause” to bring your petition. (And yes, “probable cause” is also a loosey goosey term.)

Confused yet? Read on and hopefully it will get clearer …

Charlie has two choices. First, he can roll the dice and hope he can prove his case. That’s not a good idea. Or, second, he can file a Petition for Declaratory Judgment.  Assuming you go the second route, you are not actually asking for the Court to remove Sally the trustee. You are simply asking the Court to determine whether Sally has breached her duties as trustee. Here the petition would say:

WHERFORE, Petitioner requests that the Court:

  1. Find that Sally Brown is unwilling to act as trustee of the Trust.
  2. Appoint Charlie Brown as successor trustee of the Trust only if the Court finds that Sally Brown is unwilling to serve as trustee.
  3. Order Sally Brown to deliver all accounts, books, and records of the Trust to Charlie Brown only if the Court finds that Sally Brown is unwilling to serve as trustee.
  4. Grant such other and further relief the Court deem just and appropriate under the circumstances.

A really conservative approach to a Declaratory Judgment action would be to do this in two completely separate stages. First, you would ask the court to rule that if you bring an action alleging the various misdeeds of the trustee, that you would not be violating the No Contest Clause. Only after you have the Court’s blessing with that first proceeding would you file a second petition requesting that the trustee be removed. That’s the way things are done in, for example, California.

The same principle applies in the context of a Will.

If a trustee or Personal Rep is not doing his/her job, and the relevant document has a No Contest Clause, you need to see a probate litigation attorney. Do not try to do this on your own! We’re here to help. Give us a call at 602-443-4888.

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Document preparation company for a probate?

Document preparers promise to do cheap divorces, bankruptcies … and probates. Is this a good idea? Should you use a document preparation company for a probate?

The short answer is NO (for most situations). I’ve been practicing law for 15 years now. I believe a document preparer could work if you have a very basic situation. Basic situations might be:

  • The deceased person left a valid will that an attorney prepared, and there is only one person in that will who is entitled to everything (and that same person is also named as the Personal Representative).
  • The person died without a will, and there is only one person entitled to everything. For example, the person died with no children and there is a surviving spouse.

Otherwise, I think it’s a recipe for mistakes and a family fight if you attempt to use a document preparation company. Here are some common disasters that can happen:

  1. The document preparer will suggest that everyone sign a Waiver of Bond. Bond is a form of insurance that protects against the Personal Representative stealing assets or mismanaging the estate. It’s surprisingly common for a Personal Rep to not act fairly. Bond protects the other family members from misbehavior by the Personal Representative.
  2. The document preparation company won’t check the Will for ambiguities or read the Will to see if what it says makes sense. If the estate gets distributed contrary to what the Will says, the Personal Rep could be on the hook personally for the mistake.
  3. Creditor claims can be complicated. For example, when should you deny a creditor claim?
  4. If you have a statement from a creditor (like a hospital or ambulance bill), and you send that company a Notice to Creditors, does the creditor need to send you another statement (like the Notice to Creditors says)? If you fail to deny a claim within a certain period of time, it is considered allowed and the estate need to pay it.
  5. The document preparation company won’t think through other issues. For example, how to transfer the property. A Will might way that Personal Representative should transfer the house to the deceased parent’s four kids. But that could turn into a fiasco if the kids can’t agree on what to do with the property. It would be better to have an attorney work with the family. The lawyer will fix such a situation before it turns into a problem.
  6. If a step mom or step dad is involved, you need a lawyer. There will almost certainly be conflict over division of the personal property. What if the step parent refuses to divide any of the deceased parent’s belongings with the children. It’s best to have a lawyer involved for such cases.

These are just some common situations that came to me when writing this. Just remember this: If the probate situation is really, really simple, a document preparer could handle it for you. But most cases these days are more complicated. Especially if you’re dealing with a blended family or multiple brothers or sisters.

If you have any questions, give us a call at 602-443-4888. We promise to talk straight with you. If you don’t need an attorney, we’ll let you know.