Why don’t attorneys return my call?

It has been said to me by many a client, “it is truly a breath of fresh air how fast you reply to emails and phone calls… thank you.” They often then say something like other attorneys don’t even call them back to schedule an initial appointment or call them back once they are the attorney of record… thus the age old question, “why don’t attorneys return my call?”

I hate to make excuses for my brethren so I won’t. Yes attorneys are busy but, you know what, so are most people. Life is busy.  Do attorneys really think they are busier than others?

I have heard attorneys say their time is valuable.  Yes, our time has value but it’s value comes from clients who hire us and happy clients who refer us to their friends and family. If we act like our time is more valuable than others I think we create a chasm between us and our clients. All of us have a similar time on this earth and thus, ultimately, all of our time has a similar ultimate value. You and your time deserve to be treated with respect just like I expect people to respect me and my time. We are all in this together.  Find an attorney who wants to work WITH you!

The bottom line is, however, that attorneys are just not good at creating systems nor are they generally good at prioritizing what’s important. Systems start from the minute you call an organized law office. Your call will be routed directly to me if I am available and if I am not then to my probate paralegal, Danielle.  One of us is usually available. You want answers to your California probate questions and we want to help give you those answers.

From there our systems continue. We know that most people who have lost a loved one want to talk about the probate process as quickly as possible. On the phone or in person you want answers. Once you have the answers, assuming you have to go to probate court, you probably want to file as quickly as possible. You don’t want to wait two weeks for the first appointment and you don’t want the attorney to take a week or two to organize your documents for filing.

REAL WORLD CASE STUDY:

Recently I received an email from a prospective client at 8:40 AM.  The email was from a lead’s consolidator that sends your email to several attorneys in the area. I do not know how many. I emailed back at 8:41 asking the person to call me. We finally spoke on the phone an hour later. They were in my office at 12:15. The courier arrived at 1:15 to take the signed documents to the Placer county probate court for filing. So within 5 hours of initial contact this new client’s probate was on file in court. FIVE HOURS. Not a week. Not a month. FIVE HOURS! Expect that from your probate attorney.

Our systems continue from the time of initial filing.  We publish right away in a newspaper adjudicated for the county that covers the city of death of your loved one.  We then take care of the initial notice of hearing next.  We calendar, in our system, to check the Court’s calendar notes and to get the Court order filed before the hearing. This type of system continues with the whole probate process so that your balls will not be dropped and your case will finish in a timely fashion!  Because at the end what do most people want? They want their probate finished, as quickly as possible, so they can move on with life.

So back to the question of the day… ok, well I don’t have a nice answer and I don’t want to speak ill of my comrades. Another great example was a new client who recently hired me to handle a probate of a loved one who had just died. They had been in touch with the county public guardian’s office. The county office had given them the name of three well respected probate attorneys.  Ok, two others who I consider very well respected and me being the third.  The client was happy I was able to get him in and get the documents ready so quickly to sign.  It had been about 5 days since our first contact as he was dealing with the funeral and other stuff.  You know why he hired me?  He told me, “I had the names of the three attorneys and I called all three… and you were the only one that called me back.”  It had been five days and the other two attorneys still had not called him back or had someone in their office (again, systems) call him back. If you are a young attorney put this down as law firm marketing 101 – call people back.

So it comes down to this, and yes this is a sales pitch… if you want prompt replies and efficient, high quality, legal services for your California probate then call me today!  We handle probates throughout California as we can “appear” telephonically in all the probate courts.

Call or email me today to discuss your case! 888-920-5983.   -John

Crazy Court Dates – Courts Must Be Busy

Well the California probate courts must be busy. We just got a crazy court date in a matter in Orange County probate court. That is, we filed a final petition last week to end a probate. So let’s say we e-filed it on January 10th and we got a court date… wait for it… of… MAY 31, 2018. That is 4 and one-half months from now. FOUR AND A HALF MONTHS OUT!? We usually receive court dates about 6 weeks out. To be safe I usually say 6-12 weeks out. So 20 weeks out is CRAZY!

My client and her sister want to move on with life. They want to finish their brother’s probate and put this chapter behind them. Just WOW is all I can say. 20 weeks!

Not much we can do except do everything we can to have everything filed as perfectly as possible every time to avoid a further continuance if possible.

One more reason to get your probate filed quickly is the end is out of our control so let’s start it!

-John

How fast can a probate be filed in California?

I have been asked how fast a probate can be filed in California many times. In my office fast can be REALLY FAST and in some cases the same day as initial contact is made. You can read about that down below.

In most probate cases, I find, my clients want to get to the end of probate as quickly as possible. That is, most people want to check this horrible thing off the list and get on with normal life, to the extent they can, after the loss of a loved one. One of the best ways to finish probate faster is to START faster.

I pride myself on being extremely efficient with the probate process. Heck, I have done over 1,000 probate cases so hopefully I have figured out some ways to be efficient for my clients! That efficiency starts from day one. The other day I spoke to a client about 9:00 am. I laid out the following approach to him.

We spoke at 9:00 am and I told him that if he could get to my office at 11:00 I could have the initial documents ready for signature. Our courier normally comes at 11:30 so the documents would be on file at the probate court by about 1 or 2 in the afternoon. That’s an extreme case but it’s not unheard of in my office.

When you call a prospective attorney, that you might hire, do they tell you they can get you in next week? That’s nonsense. I’ll get you in today or tomorrow but usually TODAY. Call me right now. If I am available I’d love to talk to you about your probate case right now.

I had a similar case last week. Client called about 3:30 in the afternoon. We went over her dad’s probate. I told her to be at my office at 10:00 am the next day and we’d be ready for her. We signed the documents, couriered them at 11:30 and had our court date set a few hours later.

What about for my out of area clients!? I have clients all around the US who lost a loved one in California. Some counties need hard copies to sign and some we can e-file but here’s an example of what we do. We get the needed information from our prospective client. We then email, fax or FedEx the initial documents to you for signing. If we are going to file in a county that requires hard copies we will include a FedEx return label so you can overnight everything back to us.

So, even if you are across the country we can usually be on file in any probate court in the state within about 48 hours of initial contact. Sometimes 24 hours and, in the counties that allow e-filing, we can be on file the same day as initial contact as long as we talk early in the day. Yes, really it’s possible for you to call me right now and we could file your probate case TODAY!

Why wait when you can hire the most efficient California probate attorney, that I am aware of, right now!?

Why wait for an appointment next week when you can have an appointment today or tomorrow!?

Why wait to start your probate when waiting only means it’s longer until the finish!?

Now, having said all that, there are occasionally cases where we want to or need to delay probate. There can be strategic reasons behind slowing things down at the beginning or slowing things down later. However, don’t you want to talk to an experienced probate attorney NOW to find out what the options are?

I have been a probate attorney since 1994 and have significant experience with probate cases. My personal practice is 100% probate. I do not do other cases.

Call or email me TODAY and let’s talk about your case.

-John

New Tax Laws and YOU

Unless you live under a rock, deep in a cave, you have heard about the new tax act that Congress is putting together. This is not a political commentary on that act. More importantly a few things to remember:

– With regards to estate tax very few people reading this need to worry about that element of the new tax act as it is set to bump the estate tax exemption from $5.45m to $10.9m. That is per person. So if you are a married couple with over $21.8m then your loved ones would still pay estate tax after your death. Also, it should be noted that the law sunsets so could go back to $5.45m per person or whatever else Congress feels like. However, for all practical concerns the estate tax is dead.
– However, there are still income tax concerns after death as relates to the step-up in basis. It is possible that people with funded A/B or “bypass” trusts should talk to an attorney about getting a probate court order to revoke that irrevocable trust!?
– Likewise, the same applies for Qualified Personal Residence Trusts (QPRTs) that might not be needed anymore. Again, they can be revoked in probate court.
– Lastly, plain old living trusts are still necessary to avoid probate after death in California as full probate kicks in at $150,000 of gross assets.

So, the apparent death of the estate tax does not mean you should ignore your estate plan as you could leave your loved ones a bad tax surprise and could leave them in probate court. Call your estate planning attorney your estate reviewed in light of the new tax act coming down the pipe from Washington DC.

My best wishes to you and yours this holiday season.

-John

“Letters Testamentary” v. “Letters of Special Administration”

I had an interesting case lately. The decedent had money in another jurisdiction that was not in their trust. However, it’s in a different jurisdiction, with different laws, and it sounds like the bank account has some funky titling not normal in the United States. It simply wasn’t clear what the banker wanted to clear title though. I should add this is a big money situation and time is of the essence. Initially I was told they wanted “letters” but there are many varieties of letters so which one did they want?

Getting “letters” means going to probate court. However, it does not mean that you are definitely doing a full probate. There are options and each one takes a different amount of time and costs are different as well. The types of letters are:

1) Letters Testamentary – this is where the decedent had a will and the named executor has been appointed by the Court to serve;

2) Letters of Administration – is basically identical to letters testamentary but means either there is no will or the person named executor is not serving (i.e. petition for letters with will annexed).

3) Letters of Special Administration – this is totally different than the above. It’s typically a short term (temporary) solution and can be attained on an emergency (ex parte) basis in some cases.

So in this case what does the banker really want? As I explained to my client (the named executor) there are options. Here’s a modified version (to keep attorney-client communications private) of what I told him:

“Jimmy: (no that’s not his real name)
My concern is I have a few different directions I could go.

Initially I was thinking to just file for letters of special administration. This is basically a temporary position. I would ask for the most powers the Court will grant but it’s unknown what exactly it will say. My thought is the bank in the other jurisdiction might be happy because it will be “letters” and it will be issued by a court.

However, the more I think about it I think I want to also file a standard probate. It’s a higher chance of success at our court date but we are at the mercy of the Court for when our initial Court date is. Interestingly the probate code says the court “must” give us a court date within 30 days of filing. You’ll laugh but most courts consider the word “must” as optional and we could get an initial court date between 1 and 3 months out. Once we do have our court date we will almost for sure get letters testamentary. This basically means the court has accepted the will so is a little more likely the bank will accept it. It’s the granddaddy of probate documents I would say. Once the bank accepts it we will close our probate as having no assets. Actually we’ll leave it open 4 months which allows creditors to file claims but I assume your parents do not have any creditors.

Seeking letters of special administration is more expensive as I have to spend time sitting at the courthouse in an attempt to get them issued on a rush basis. That could be as soon as next week though. However, it costs money between attorney time sitting at the courthouse and the court filing fees. If we are successful, and the bank accepts them, then we can just drop our full probate petition.

Please let me know if this makes sense to seek letters in two different ways or fill me in on any other info the bank provided.

If you want to chat on the phone I have time Tuesday and Wednesday.

-John”

So, as you can see there are options. It’s a gray area here…. There is not simply one answer that works. There are options. In this case where we don’t know exactly what the bank wants that’s the first step. Once we have the bank pinned down, in writing, then we can proceed.

To me this is a great example of why probate is much more complex than a do-it-yourself book might indicate. There is no book for situations like this one!

-John

“Hi Grandma it’s….” ** SCAM ALERT **

SCAM ALERT

An old friend lost her husband recently. He was a really great guy but that’s not the point of this post. She told me that within days of the death she received a call where the caller said, “hi Grandma it’s your grandson Michael….” I don’t remember the details of what she told me but I think he asked for money in some fashion. Maybe money to come visit for the funeral. I don’t recall. Doesn’t matter. Point is he was a scam artist and not her grandson. The key fact here is she is fully aware of her faculties and knew it was not her grandson.

Of course in this day and age it’s pretty easy for scam artists to read obituaries online, find a person’s phone number and call them up. In fact, that’s always been a possible scam but with the internet, and all the easily obtainable information, it is even easier as there is so much information out there.

So what’s the point? If you lose a loved one BE CAREFUL and certainly DO NOT SEND MONEY TO ANYBODY without confirming with someone else that it’s legitimate.

If you are taking care of an elderly family let them know to be on high alert as scam artists are out there and they love a person in grief that they can take advantage of.

BE CAREFUL!

Steps to Take upon death of a loved one

You just lost a loved one… now what?

As a probate attorney for over 20 years I have dealt with well over 1,000 deaths at work. I have also dealt with the deaths of several family members and close friends. It’s a part of life… death and taxes! So, you just a loved one what should you do? We provide this to assist you during these trying days.

First and foremost take care of yourself! Though we are not psychologists nor do we have any formal training in the realm of psychology it is a part of our work to hear about the death of a loved one. We talk to people about death every day. Do something nice for yourself while you make all the necessary arrangements! Some suggestions might be to get a massage, take time to talk to friends and family, or even call upon a mental health professional for a consult. Just do not forget that you have needs during this most stressful and difficult time. DO NOT FORGET ABOUT YOURSELF!

As you move forward try not to do this alone. Call upon a trusted friend or relative for help. If you don’t have anybody you feel comfortable reaching out to maybe you have religious clergy who could provide some guidance!? Or a good mortuary can be helpful. The key is you will need, at a minimum, some direction and likely more than that. Do not be shy as people generally want to help those in need. ASK FOR HELP!

Sadly, when someone dies bad people might take an opportunity to benefit for themselves. I strongly encourage people to secure the decedent’s home and consider moving items away from the house for safekeeping. Though you do not have letters issued by the probate court there is a practical necessity to protect things. You probably shouldn’t, or physically can’t, move everything but small items of financial or sentimental value should probably be moved to a safe place. Just make sure the rest of the family knows so nobody thinks you are stealing the items! SECURE ITEMS OF VALUE!

Along the lines of securing items of value is stopping deliveries and mail from being made to the house. Cancel the newspaper right away so they don’t pile up in the driveway! You can try to put a mail forward in with the US Post Office so that the mail goes somewhere other than the deceased’s house. At least ask the post office to put a hold on the mail. STOP DELIVERIES!

Once your deceased loved one’s home and property are secure you need to CALL A MORTUARY or funeral home. They deal with death all day and every day. They are very professional in my experience. A good professional is worth the cost here. They will help you with a number of things like obtaining death certificates and can point you in the right direction for many other things. This is not the time to do it yourself! CALL A MORTUARY or FUNERAL HOME FOR HELP!

Along the line of death certificates order a few more than you think you need. It is much easier to have a few extra then to order more copies later. If you think you will need 5 or 10. If you think you need 10 order 15. Generally one for each bank, life insurance company, financial company, and likely some other things you have not thought of. ORDER EXTRA DEATH CERTIFICATES!

Once you have selected the date, time and location of the funeral or memorial service you need to figure out who is going to officiate the event. Using a religious clergy is quite common but certainly not your only option. FIND YOUR OFFICIANT!

Hopefully you found your loved one’s phone book or maybe their email account was still open on their computer… because you need to notify the masses. Let them know of the sad news and invite them to the ceremony if it is open to them. Don’t be shy about asking for help making the calls. People want to know when someone dies. In my experience, even if I haven’t talked to them in several years I want to know. CONTACT FRIENDS AND RELATIVES!

At this point people might ask if there is a charity they could donate to in honor of the death. I often seen medical charities, the decedent’s college, or just a charity they cared about. It’s a nice way for people to show they care. This can be included in the obituary too! PICK A CHARITY!

Most people contact the local newspaper and/or the newspaper where your loved one spent the majority of their life. Be careful here as prices can add up! Obituaries can be expensive if you include every last thing you want to include. Read some other obituaries for ideas of what to include and not to include. I would make sure the newspaper has their own online portal or, better yet, links to a major site like legacy.com. Do not forget to include funeral information if it is open to the public. PREPARE A WELL WRITTEN OBITUARY!

You probably need to get a group of professionals to help you. The common professionals I see used at death are: estate attorney, financial planner, accountant and Realtor. All of them play an important role. They can make life easier for you. HIRE YOUR PROFESSIONALS!

Once you have a death certificate you might want to notify life insurance, 401k’s, IRAs, and any other assets that had, or might have, named beneficiaries. There can be tax consequences in some choices you make so talk to your tax professional before submitting the paperwork. FILE DEATH CLAIMS!

Aside from the death claims maybe the decedent had bank accounts, bonds, or other assets. If so you need to determine how to access them. This is often done by showing trust paperwork and a death certificate if there is a living trust. If there is no living trust then going to probate court may be required. Your estate attorney should be able to make this easier for you. CONTACT FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS!

Some people don’t realize but debts are not extinguished when someone dies except for certain student loans. As time goes on you should go through your loved one’s stuff and make a list of all possible creditors. Generally you’ll want to notify them before money is distributed to the heirs and beneficiaries. This is a place your estate attorney can likely help. DETERMINE DEBTS AND LIABILITIES!

When you are going through, making a list of all possible creditors, you should start to contact the credit card companies. Let them know of the death so that they close the account. While they usually wipe away any post-death fraudulent activity it’s best to close the accounts to avoid fraudulent activity from happening. CLOSE CREDIT CARDS!

You eventually need to cancel the decedent’s insurance and in due time their insurance carriers should be notified. Make sure you have new insurance lined up before canceling anything. INSURANCE IS IMPORTANT!

At some point utility bills should be taken out of the decedent’s name but there is no real urgency for that. The only drawback to not switching the account name over is that you likely will not be able to communicate much with the utility providers. That is, they will not supply you information other than maybe the amount due. SWITCH NAMES ON UTILITY ACCOUNTS!

Best wishes going through these most difficult days.

Calendar Notes in Probate Court

You get calendar notes in your probate court case. Now what do you? Every county is different. Some counties post calendar notes (or “tentative rulings”) a day before the court hearing and some do it a month before. Some do not post anything and you appear in Court and see what the Judge has to say. For those that do post notes how quickly can you or your attorney reply?

We pride ourselves on efficiency. We file probate cases extremely quickly. Time is of the essence in most probate cases as people, typically, want to move on from the death of their loved one. Or maybe they waited a while before having the emotional energy to deal with probate so there could be some issues developing like a house in foreclosure. EFFICIENCY IS KEY!

Few of us are perfect. Having filed over 1,000 probate cases we still get calendar notes to address. Sometimes they are mistakes we made and sometimes, dare I say it, it is at least possible that the court missed something in their review of the file. The key is filing something FAST to try and preserve your Court date.

Here are actual notes from our case. This is a public record but I still removed the name:

16. S-PR-XXXXXXX ___________. – In Re the Estate of
Missing proof of publication.
Missing required allegations at ¶ 5a(3)-(4) (RDP).
Proof of subscribing witness appears incomplete. Additional representations are needed; see Prob.C. §§ 8220(a) & 6110(b)-(c).

So first question is how quickly do you or your attorney get the notes? some counties, like Sacramento, email us as soon as the notes are posted. Others have to be checked manually. For those we check at least once a day and, as the court date gets closer, multiple times a day. We want to find out your notes as soon as possible so we can fix anything that needs to be fixed.

Then what?

The above notes are not uncommon.

Note 1 “Missing proof of publication.” We had a close Court date and the publication takes a few weeks. The newspaper often files just days before the court date so that’s a common note.

Note 2 “Missing required allegations at ¶ 5a(3)-(4) (RDP).” We missed one box. Did the decedent have a registered domestic partner. Out of, approximately 1,000 probate cases, I have only checked that one a couple times. It’s pretty rare. To fix we really need a verified supplement signed by our client. We got her a document to sign within a half hour of seeing the note. She printed, signed, emailed back to us, and we “fax filed” it the same day. So that’s cleared.

Note 3 “Proof of subscribing witness appears incomplete. Additional representations are needed; see Prob.C. §§ 8220(a) & 6110(b)-(c).” In some cases the will was not prepared with correct language which requires us to have to track down one of the will witnesses and have them sign a form about the execution of the document. A lot of times that will signing was 20 years ago so they might not remember. This note is a tough one. I think it’s arguable that the witness checked the boxes which they recalled but the court wanted more. So we discussed it with them and then filed an amended proof of subscribing witness form.

The point is these things happen. A large percentage of cases have calendar notes. The keys are: 1) finding the calendar notes as quick as possible to maximize the time you have to fix them, 2) determining what you need to do to address the notes, 3) efficiently addressing the notes to the Court’s satisfaction.

We got our calendar notes Friday morning for a Wednesday hearing. Only a few days and the Monday was a court holiday. WE GOT IT APPROVED ON-TIME THOUGH!

Good luck in your probate cases! -John

FAST probate in California….

Did you know you can request your first probate court hearing be hearing in only 30 days? The California probate code specifically authorizes this at California probate code 8003. Here is the text of that section:

8003. (a) The hearing on the petition shall be set for a day not
less than 15 nor more than 30 days after the petition is filed. At
the request of the petitioner made at the time the petition is filed,
the hearing on the petition shall be set for a day not less than 30
nor more than 45 days after the petition is filed. The court may not
shorten the time for giving the notice of hearing under this section.
(b) The petitioner shall serve and publish notice of the hearing
in the manner prescribed in Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 8100).

In counties like Sacramento the first hearing date might be 3 months out so invoking PC 8003 may be wise. This is certainly something to ask your attorney about because it is not automatic… regardless of what the code section says.

For our clients who are in a special rush we invoke PC 8003 to help them achieve a fast probate… or at least faster probate.

If you are interested in the most efficient probate process possible contact us to discuss your case.

-John

How to probate when a husband and wife die a year a part

I had a really interesting fact pattern today that I wanted to share. I got the perspective client’s permission to share but, of course, names are changed for privacy. Sadly Gina’s mom, Molly, died in December of 2015 and her dad, Donald, died in December of 2016. A crappy 12 months for Gina we can all agree. They owned a house in Sacramento county.

A very common scenario we see is where the decedent’s home ends up in one spouse’s name alone. This is often done for financing purposes where one spouse has great credit, one spouse has bad credit, one spouse is employed, one spouse is self employed, etc…. Several of those factors were present here. So there is a house in Molly’s name as her “sole and separate property.” That is, Donald actually deeded his interest in the house to Molly as her sole and separate property.

Our goal is to get the house into Gina’s name in the most efficient and cost effective manner possible. Oh ya, I forgot to mention, Gina is an only child.  For simple math let’s say the house is worth $500k with a $250k mortgage.  Let’s assume no other assets of significance to keep this simple.  Gina has options. Let’s discuss them.

OPTION A:

Gina could treat the house as her mom’s separate property. That is what the deed says so that is a very reasonable approach. By doing that there would be a probate for a $500,000 house. At the conclusion of probate, due to the laws of intestacy, Gina would get 1/2 of the property and the other 1/2 would go to dad’s estate. The cost would be roughly $13,000 in attorney fees and roughly $2,000 in court costs for a total of $15,000.

That’s not all though. Then dad’s 1/2 has to be probated.  Let’s assume $250k value so about $8,000 in attorney fees and just under $2,000 in court costs.

Yikes up to $25,000 in probate fees and costs… but that’s not all.  Let’s assume the house appreciated $50,000 from Molly’s death until Donald’s death. Based on the Sacramento real estate market in recent years that is a reasonable guess. That would slightly reduce the cost of the probate by $1,000 (that is the cost of probating a $450,000 house rather than a $500,000 house) but still all in at $24,000.

However, that’s not all… bigger still is 1/2 of that $50,000 gain would not step-up in basis at Donald’s death thus leaving Gina with a tax basis in 1/2 of the property $25,000 less than current value. If we assume 25% between federal and state capital gains tax that’s about $5,000 or $6,000 more.

In summation I think option A would cost Gina about $30,000.

OPTION B:

My preferred plan is option B. Let me explain.  Yes, the deed says “sole and separate property” but does it always mean that?  We have, many times, successfully used a spousal property petition even when the title says that it is separate property. Again, remember, this deed is only in Molly’s name alone due to financing reasons. The reality is it was community property.  Title is just a presumption and that presumption would be easily knocked down.

So we would prepare a spousal property petition (SPP) to transfer the property, 100%, from mom to dad.  Different attorneys charge different amounts for preparing an SPP but let’s just call it $5,000 between attorney fees and court costs as an estimate.

The SPP would move the property 100% to dad’s estate.  We would then probate dad’s $500,000 house. The cost would be about $15,000 for that probate

The total of attorney fees and court costs with option B is thus $20,000.

PLUS Gina gets a FULL STEP UP IN TAX BASIS so will not have a gain on sale and thus avoids about $5,000 or $6,000 in capital gains tax. Gina is the big winner here!

There are always other facts to consider. In this case I asked about creditors and confirmed that Donald was not on Medi-Cal. That is, I don’t want to create a large estate for dad and then have dad’s estate go to creditors.

Please remember that each case can have other unique factors so talk to an attorney before trying this on your own.

-John

 

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