Chapter 1 – Introduction to probate law
I am a highly experienced probate attorney. At the time of writing this book I have probably completed over 1,000 probate cases… if not more and sat through literally thousands of probate court hearings for other people’s cases while I have waited for mine to be heard in Court. You learn a lot doing cases and a lot watching how other people do their cases! These cases have included all types of probate cases: full probates big and small, spousal property petitions, successions to real property worth under $150,000, probate code 850 “Heggstad” petitions in trust cases, and more. The vast majority, however, have been the four letter word that people hate to hear… the full blown California p-r-o-b-a-t-e. That is the dreaded “P” word. I will talk about the various probate options later but the focus of this book is on the full probate.
Maybe it’s not really four letters but that’s the way people see it and say it. When people say it the words something like, “PRObate” and it sounds exhausting when people say it. It’s the process that everybody wants to avoid. Knowing how much people dread the probate process during my years in practice I have constantly looked for ways to improve the process and make it more efficient for all. My hope is that book distills the process down to a point that you can come out, as many of my clients do, saying “probate wasn’t that big of a deal.” While I hope that my readers are reading this while there is still time to get a living trust for you or your loved ones and avoid the big “P” if not I hope this book will make your probate experience much easier than you anticipated.
I always hear in casual conversations, or see in online forums, how probate “takes years” to complete. Yes it can take years but it really should not take even one year. That is, in the vast majority of cases a California probate should take less than one year and, as I have stated, probably about 7 or 8 months in total. It’s not the end of the world! However, you need to take the bull by the horns and you need to work with an attorney who is really good at moving the ball down the field toward that elusive end-zone for the touchdown! As I like to say, most people want to get the probate process over with so they can move on past the death of a loved one. Having an open probate case makes it hard to move on and hard to deal with other parts of the grieving process.
When I first started doing probate work in the mid 1990’s I said probate took six months in California. Now I say it’s seven months and it’s only seven with an efficient probate attorney! It can easily take eight months to conduct a California probate right now and it can take MUCH longer than eight months in a variety of circumstances. This book is written with the goal of helping you complete the probate you are working on in seven months. It’s designed for administrators/executors doing their own probate, those working with a probate attorney and even for probate attorneys who want to improve their probate system. In many situations the goal of seven months is simply not possible but I am going to tell you things that will give you your best chance of completing it in seven months. Yes it is possible!
As the court system has been impacted by the continuing budget crisis in public service agencies the probate process has become more time consuming and emotionally taxing than in the past. Plus, not surprisingly, the costs of probate are always going up. Court costs, appraisal costs, attorney fees seem to go up, up, up! Get ready to be patient because probate can test you! However, probate does not have to beat you. If you know what to expect and if you hire an expert guide (i.e. a really experienced California probate attorney) the process should be manageable.
I liken the California probate process to a high hurdle race. There are hurdles throughout the race that must be jumped in order for you to get to the finish line. However, if you don’t time your run correctly you will bump into the hurdle and cause yourself a delay. My goal, with the California probate process, is to smoothly glide over each hurdle as it arrives. That is, I help my clients look ahead to the next hurdle so they are ready for it when it arrives. When I guide my clients through the process it is very smooth and elegant in most cases. With this book I hope to help teach the reader to also have a smooth and elegant run around the track.
My job is to explain the court side of the process in detail to help you better navigate the system. There are other books on probate but it’s my feeling they talk too much about the forms and not enough about the actual process. As a person who has taught classes on probate and estate planning law at UC Davis Extension, NBI and McQuillan I think I am well versed to write a book to help educate you on the whole process. What forms to use, when to use them and… oh ya… I’ll tell you about the local forms and the unofficial forms that other books likely do not tell you about! Knowing the forms is great but knowing when to have them ready to file is even better so you can be ready and on-time with your filings. Please be my student but don’t worry there is no test at the end!