Probate is the result of lack of planning. Late last year, my brother-in-law died unexpectedly. In his passing, he left a mess. Apparently, Adam suffered from debilitating pain and slowly stopped taking care of himself and his surroundings. Unmarried and estranged from family by his own choice, he allowed his life to slowly unravel.
The county coroner estimated that Adam had been dead for about a week before a friend called the sheriff for a wellness check. To say the situation is sad is simply an understatement. No one knew how dire Adam’s situation had become until we received a report from the county.
Because of a history of less-than-positive family issues—including a sister who had mismanaged the parent’s estate—my husband contacted an attorney upon hearing about his brother’s death. The attorney acquired photos of Adam’s house from the county, which showed rotting food and an excessive amount of garbage inside and outside. She recommended an emergency hearing to appoint my husband temporary administrator. The judge granted the request, issued the order, and we began our journey into the world of probate law.
What is probate?
According to A People’s Choice, “In California, probate is a legal proceeding required to settle a deceased person’s estate, paying all debts of the decedent, and distributing the property to the heirs and beneficiaries.” It sounds simple enough, but without a will or trust, the court process can be both time-consuming and expensive. Details of probate vary by state, but the process generally takes several months and requires a multitude of legal documents and legal assistance—unless you are blessed with the time, ability, and determination to navigate the requirements of the court alone.
It didn’t take long to get the first indication of the costs involved in the probate process. Because Adam’s body was discovered by the sheriff’s office, an investigation ensued, and the county was the first to enter the residence. In addition to taking photos, they looked for a will and valuables, which they inventory and retain until a blocked account is set up.
What does probate cost?
Four county employees spent one hour searching through the debris. They discovered keys, silver coins, bonds, and about $3,000 in cash—but no will. Total estimated cost for their services: $3000. The county administrator explained that the fees were determined by the estimated size of the estate. When there is no will, every agency and attorney involved wants a generous piece of the pie. Doing a lot of the work yourself can save thousands of dollars. Of course, the county can administer the estate, but at these rates, there wouldn’t be much left.
The lesson here is to do your heirs a favor and put your assets and wishes into a trust. Keep in mind that a typical trust document also includes pour-over wills, durable powers of attorney for property management, advanced healthcare directives, and trust deeds. This is everything you need to avoid probate. Want to learn more? Check out Nolo Press—always a great source of legal information.