Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Litigation in the Probate Courts Part II, How Long Does it Take?

In the first installment of this series of posts, we talked about the general aspects of probate litigation, and what to expect if you find yourself involved in a case.  In this post I will talk about how long each phase of a case may take, and what a litigant can expect along the way.  Often, the timing of a case is as important as the substance of the claims.

A case breaks down into the following segments:

A. Pleading, or the making of allegations by one side and the corresponding denial of allegations by the other side.  Pleading alone can take several months.  In a Probate case, it is rare for one party to file any sort of motion, the other party to receive it and object, and for the parties to both agree with the Court to move to the next stage in anything less than about four months, sometimes much longer.  The other factor is that in a Probate case there are often more than two sides.  Each beneficiary of an estate could have a different view of a matter.

B. Discovery, or additional fact finding.   Additional fact finding always takes time.  For example, let say that the matter at issue is a beneficiary demanding an accounting.  Well, the court may say "when can you have that accounting done?"  The party may respond "in three months."  Then the court orders it filed, and of course the other side gets time to examine it and have specific objections, which might take a couple of more months.  So now you could easily have taken a year.

C. Preliminary Orders, which are Orders from the Court to keep the case moving along.  There may be some preliminary orders along the way, but those could be expensive to get and are always time consuming.  To continue with the example above, a typical case may start with a beneficiary accusing the trustee of some act and asking that the trustee be removed.  However, if there has not been an accounting filed the court will want to see that first, and that may take a few months.

D.  A formal mediation. At this point a year or so may have gone by, and the parties are already growing tired.  At this point the Court will offer the parties a chance to mediate the matter before a private mediator.  Often, this is the point at which the case settles.  Mediation can be very helpful, since it is often in mediation that, for the first time, one side hears how the other side's arguments and their arguments are viewed by an unbiased third party.

E.  An Evidentiary Hearing.  Thiis is what most people consider "a trial" to be, or what they think of by "going to court."  Not only do the first four steps often take more than a year to complete, it now may take a year to get a hearing date on a matter that will take more than a couple of hours of evidence.  Two years with no resolution feels like a long time, and it is.

F.  Appeals, if any.  An actual appeal, with briefing schedule to the appellate court, could be another year.  Often, appeals are filed simply to create the possibility of additional settlement discussions.

As you can see, the rather extreme length of time it can take to obtain a court order is a factor in the dispute,  independent of the actual merits of the claim.  Time is a factor which simply must be discussed with the client, because not only is "time" an issue, but costs rise along with time.  There is no positive way to really spin this, but this is why most cases settle -- it would simply take too long and cost too much to achieve complete victory.

At Moravec, Varga & Mooney we have extensive experience with disputed matters and the various phases of a case.  We have found that it is a great help to a client to give them an honest appraisal of how long a case can actually take.  It can be an extremely bad thing if a lawyer is "too optimistic" about how quickly a client can get a case to a judge.  If the client does not understand the time and costs involved, the time and cost can simply overwhelm the merits of the case, which can be a disaster if the case is actually a good one.

Posted by Henry (Hank) J. Moravec, III, a partner at Moravec, Varga and Mooney, A Partnership.
For a free 30 minute consultation (telephonic or in person), you can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210. The firm website is www.moravecslaw.com

The Los Angeles area office is located at 2233 Huntington Drive, Suite 17, San Marino, California 91108.