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Heggstad petition v. full probate after death of first spouse

I spoke to a potential new client recently who has a very common scenario. For this blog we will call them Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  He and his wife have a trust from the early 1980’s.  It appears to be a fairly standard trust. Along with it they also have “pour over” wills as most people have.  Mrs. Smith died recently with an asset out of their trust.

In about the year 2000 they bought a home together in the Sacramento area.  They bought the home “as community property.” That is the deed says “John Smith and Jane Smith, husband and wife as community property.”  Unfortunately the CP with right of survivorship law had not come into effect in that year. Thus California did not yet have an automatic community property ownership option yet.

As a probate attorney when I see husband and wife as community property, but without the words “with right of survivorship” I immediately think of doing a spousal property petition. That is an abbreviated petition in the probate court to transfer the property from one spouse to another.  It is a pretty quick petition and fairly routine when the property is titled in community property. However, a spousal property petition does not work when there is a pour over will. In this case Mr. and Mrs. Smith have the standard pour over will to their trust. Spousal property petitions only work between a husband and a wife; not a trust. So the SPP will not work. What other options does Mr. Smith have?

I believe his only two options are:

  1. A Heggstad petition pursuant to California probate code 850; or
  2. A full probate.

I have blogged other times about the Heggstad petition so I’ll keep it brief here. A Heggstad petition is a way of transferring property to a trust by showing that the decedent intended for the property to be in a trust. With real estate the intent should be shown by a specific writing. The most common writings are: 1) a specific listing of real estate on a schedule of assets, 2) a specific mention of the property in the trust document (i.e. “I give the property located at 1234 Main Street to my son Bob….”), 3) a signed but unrecorded deed, or 4) other written statements such as a letter to an attorney asking for a deed to be prepared. If successful a Heggstad petition should be done in about 8 weeks. The result will be a court order that is recorded in the county recorder’s office.

In this case there is none of the above written intent. I thus think the odds of a Heggstad petition working are probably 50%, at best. In fact, 50% is really the most generous I can be and that’s hoping the Judge is feeling generous. To increase our chances of success I would have Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s children sign consents to the petition and file those with the court.

The other option is a full probate. While the above only supplies about a 50% chance of success a full probate is a 100% chance of success. Unfortunately it costs more money and takes longer. In this case it would probably cost Mr. Smith about double the money that a Heggstad petition would.  Also a full probate is 7 months MINIMUM in time. However, the property can be sold during probate so upon the appointment of Mr. Smith as Executor, in about 6-8 weeks, he can close escrow. That is, 1/2 of the house would be owned by the estate and 1/2 would be owned by him as an individual.

Other options for Mr. Smith to consider?  One option I offered was to file the Heggstad petition and a full probate simultaneously. The advantage is that if the Heggstad petition is not successful the probate is already filed and ready to be approved. The added cost is probably $1,000, or so, for the initial probate costs (filing fee with the court and publication in the newspaper). If the heggstad petition is successful then the full probate would be dropped. On the other hand if the Heggstad is not successful then we move forward with the full probate.

It is unfortunate that Mr. and Mrs. Smith did not deed the property into their trust while Mrs. Smith was still alive.  However, they didn’t so, at this point, it is what it is. We need to clean it up so that Mr. Smith can get the house sold.

If you have a situation, like Mr. Smith, contact us to discuss YOUR best option!   -John

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10.0John Bernard Palley
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