Probate cases and county counsel, county coroner and the public guardian

I was recently contacted, as I have been many times throughout the years, by a family member (often a distant family member) who was contacted by a county employee from some county in California. It could be county counsel, county coroner or the public guardian’s office.  The one this past week was from a new client whose relative had died in Alameda county.  The Alameda county coroner’s office contacted them to basically say “hey, your long lost relative died… there is more than $166,250 here we think… you need to do probate….”  I am summarizing what the county employee said as I am sure they said nicer, added in some sympathy, and probably made the call take 10 minutes. However, the gist is the same – dead relative, assets over probate threshold, do you want this money?

First thing I always do is contact the county employee.  Why?  I have had a few times through the years where a county office has had a personal attachment to a case.  I am not sure if they are trying to make budgets come together by bringing in probates to manage (I tend to doubt it), if they have some personal interest in the case, or they just don’t like or don’t trust the next of kin and would prefer to handle things in-house!?  I don’t know and I don’t care.  I have found it’s better not to fight city hall.  So I call the county employee to see what’s going on. I also do this because the county employee will sometimes be forthcoming with some other useful information.  Generally speaking the county is happy to get the case off their desk as they have too many cases. The budget cuts back in the great recession cut staffs severely at a lot of governmental agencies. Thus they would rather someone else handle the probate usually.

Second I try to gather what asset information I can. I look in the public record to see if the decedent owned the house they lived in. I ask the county what bank records they found. I ask the family member what they know. I do all this as I want to confirm the total assets will require a full probate. In my current Alameda county matter I think we could avoid a full probate so I explained how that would work and what the options look like. Ultimately it’s my client’s decision.

Next step is I try to get as much family tree info as I can.  Again I ask the county and I ask the family member. Sometimes nobody knows much or, as in my new case, they have info from the early 1960’s. We disclose all relevant information to the probate court in our filings as we don’t want to withhold or be secretive as that can come back and bite you in the butt!  In the current case we are telling the Court what we believe happened back in the 1960’s and advising the Court that we will hire an heirfinder (or is it heir finder!?) once we determine there are assets. I find that the court is usually agreeable when people are forthcoming with information.

The next step is filing the probate. I hope to have this new probate on file in Alameda early this week. However, I do want to take the time, and care, to make sure we get all the facts right and lay them out correctly for the court to review. Again, honesty and forthcoming are your friend!

If we file this the first week of February in Alameda county I would expect a court date around late March or early April. On that day, with any luck, my client will be named Administrator of the estate. Then they can really dig in to confirm asset values, work to get the home sold, and work on confirming the family tree information.

An interesting side note on family trees, heirs, and who gets the dough. The reality is there are cases where the money goes to the wrong person. I am sure I have had clients lie to me over the years. I had one client, I recall, where they tried to take back what they had just told me. They literally said something like “can you just pretend I didn’t tell you about my brother’s kid?”  I had to decline working with that person. I am sure there have been others where they lied to me but I had no clue. That’s the reality. One thing refreshing about my current case is they seem to be very forthcoming. They just want to do the right thing. If the decedent’s child wasn’t adopted out then they want that child to have the money even if they haven’t seen their dad in 50+ years. We shall see….  In cases where we find heirfinders they might not always create a perfect family tree as they start by interviewing as many family members as they can and then they go and look through records (births, deaths, marriage, etc….).  The reality is even a really good licensed heirfinder/private eye can make a mistake and/or be given false information.

Once we have the assets figured out, the family figured out, we still have to deal with creditors and taxes just like any other probate case. We will do that too!  In a case like this the county coroner will turn over all records they find. They usually do a good job at piling up asset and creditor information.

Oh ya, another twist in this case is the local police department confiscated some weapons that the decedent had. So my client will need to get those transferred over to a gun dealer for sale or to re-title them in a family member’s name after probate.

Lots of twists and turns is often the case with cases from the coroner, guardian, or county counsel’s office.

If you have been contacted by a county employee and believe you have a California probate situation please contact me to see if we can help!

-John

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