Thursday, June 6, 2013

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer in Probate Court?

One common question that we often hear is the following:

"Do I have to hire a lawyer in Probate Court?"

or its close relative:

"Can I represent myself in Probate Court?"

I would note that this question also comes up during Probate Court hearings on a regular basis, because on a typical day, out of about 50 or so matters on the calendar there are bound to be 2 or 3 people representing themselves without lawyers.  Invariably, of the two or three, one or two of them is told by the judge to "seek legal advice."

You would expect a lawyer to say "of course you need to hire a lawyer" but the most accurate answer is that the need depends upon the facts:

1. If you have plenty of time on your hands, and no time pressure with respect to the estate, and no pressure from creditors or heirs, you might be able to represent yourself and have no downside.   Most people consider "wasting time" a downside, hence the first qualification.  A continuance, which is what the Court calls the situation where a matter scheduled for January 31 has to to be rescheduled for March 5 because a document is not properly prepared, causes a delay of the time of the continuance, in this example over 30 days.  So, if it does not matter how long it takes to, for example, take title to property, then the client would not be upset with the delay.  However, if a creditor or another heir wants things concluded, the delay is problematic.

So, that leads us to the next generalization:  if time is in any sense of the essence, only by using an experienced probate lawyer can you be confident to minimize delays.   This also applies if the client simply wants to not worry about the matter, because regardless of how long the process takes, the stress factor drops if a lawyer helps with the case.

3. Then, there are the situations in which you absolutely need a lawyer, and as soon as possible: (a) any time there is a party against you.  This is because a mistake you make may result in liability to the other party, be they creditor or heir.  (b) Any time there is a potential tax problem of the decedent.  (c) any time there is a creditor of the decedent which has a claim which may be disputed.

4. Finally, if you do not want the burden of responsibility, you should always hire a lawyer.   If, for example one sibling is nominated to be the administrator, and part of the job is reporting on the administration to the other siblings, use of an experienced probate lawyer greatly increases the odds that the administration will be stress free, since an expert will be available to answer questions.  This factor alone seems like a matter of common sense but is in fact important.  Many "probate disputes" start when the administrator is un-represented and an avoidable mistake is made.

 The Cost May Be Less Than You Think

 Probate fees are significantly less than fees charged by realtors to market and sell property.  Although there are some discount real estate (market your property yourself) brokerages, in the main no one considers the standard 5% commission on a real estate transaction to be out of line, and as a matter of fact considering the amount of people who voluntarily pay it, it is considered very much "in line."  To sell a $1,000,000 house, in a transaction which might take 60 to 90 days, costs $50,000.   To probate a $1,000,000 estate, which might take more than a year, and collect various assets and deal with multiple beneficiaries, and protect yourself as a fiduciary from liability costs a $23,000 statutory fee in Probate Court.   Although there are sometimes other fees and costs for additional work, at a fundamental level in this area legal representation is less expensive that selling a house.

So, it turns out that advice is actually simple.  Save money if you can, but don't be "penny wise and pound foolish."

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