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Probate: How To Be a Savvy Beneficiary

Wow, a double whammy, losing a loved one and discovering you are to inherit a loving gift from them, as they left a Will. Prepare for a journey into the Kabuki theater of the macabre world of Probate. You will never be the same!

Picture, if you will, in your mind’s eye, a scene from Apocalypse Now, where there is a soldier standing in the middle of the battle, and a large group of Hueys coming in to the music of Wagner’s Ride of Valkyries. Now, take the soldier out of that scene and replace him with Probate lawyers. Hear the whop, flop, whop of the Huey blades, as hordes of lawyers seeking billable hours, using your inheritance as a slush fund. The lawyer on the ground, in a grotesque act of privilege, says, “I love the smell of probate in the morning!” The Hueys shoot down every square inch of your trust, family, friends and belief in the equity of a legal process.

Here is one person’s story through that hell. I have also spoken with many who are or have been caught up in this Kabuki theater, where the estate says the assets are theirs, but probate law says, not so fast — first it belongs to a trustee or an executive, overseeing the distribution of the assets. From those same assets, that person, will consume their billable hours, and it will take a year, two years or more. Someday, you will encounter this scene. I hope this story helps you through it.

As one attorney says, on his website ad, a photo of him flying through the air in a Mighty Mouse pose; black business suit, graduate of Harvard, it is over when the money is gone! This particular attorney, is paid for out of the estate, to represent your executor/trustee, if you dare to ask questions that make the trustee/executor nervous that they might be sued for mismanagement of your estate. They will demand you sign a waiver to hold them harmless, for things you will not know about until after the estate is closed. 

From when they begin, everything is transferred into their name, they are to protect it and manage it for the beneficiaries, until it is disbursed. For that time, they are protected by confidentiality — of the deceased. From this moment until it closes, everything they do is a billable hour, out of your inheritance. $200 an hour, $400 an hour? Anything they want, absolutely no oversight, unless you want to ask your question in court. For that you will need to hire an attorney, and file a petition in court. This is paid by the beneficiary, and more likely than not, will not be reimbursed. Don’t expect it!

Probate law says that now the lawyer will get billable hours at a higher rate for court activities, for these tasks are not part the trustee/executor administrative duties, yet, since this type of need for counsel is considered billable for the trustee/executor, as it is part of the administration. Sort of a situation that covers all. 

The trustee/executor will use your estate funds to hire their own attorney of choice. They are not limited with a budget. They can and will choose anyone they want, cost is no object. So their attorney will now bill for handling this side track issue in the case. But, wait for it — your trustee/executive, will also bill for talking with their attorney, also using trust assets. No reasonable limit set, and no limit set on what represents an issue for which the trustee/executor can seek council. 

In my case, the counsel was requested to block and obstruct the request for discovery, that being, documents that were supposed to be provided, but were not. They never have been, and never will be. Reason, confidentiality! All of this maneuvering, involved weeks, months and waiting for attorneys to talk back and forth, ask for discovery and get a time period like 90 days to get it done. Then the other attorney, gets to read it, and file their own objections.

Next comes now “objections.” These little critters are amazing pack-man-like eaters of billable hours. For objections are met with counter objections. Now the conversation has changed from the trustee/executor distributing your estate, into fear and loathing by the trustee/executor of the beneficiaries, and then it moves into yet a new side track, objections. A whole new category, preventing the beneficiary from seeing any confidential documents, activities or in any other way, asking the trustee/executor, to behave as prescribed by Probate law. All private!

Your estate, belongs to them, and remains confidential, until it has closure. Until then, your assets are considered none of your beeswax. How dare you even ask. Your only task will be to sign documents, whether you understand them, agree with them or wish to say no.

After a long wait, possibly a couple of years, the trustee/executor, will finally have used up lots of billable hours. In my case it so far has totaled over $50,000, just for her. This does not include her counsel, nor any of the other professionals she has engaged to consult with. All lost in administrative sleight of hand tricks to use estate funds, as a private slush fund. After all, it is all confidential, and the trustee/executor, have the Probate Court’s approval, to spend anything they want or need. 

If any beneficiary asks, they are told they are troublemakers, costing the estate money and time which equals more billable hours. Beneficiaries are also told not to quibble over a few thousand dollars not accounted for, while attorneys are billing for 15 minutes for picking up a letter and date stamping it! 

I call that quibbling. 

So, again we have every penny for the trustee/executor and her counsel, and that the beneficiary let go of a few unaccounted for missing thousands! What? 

Sibling rivalry. Some Probate lawyers actually specialize in this “area of law” and advertise their particular expertise. If it does not exist, no matter, it still makes an interesting legal accusation, with billable hours. A new lawyer can be hired by the executor/trustee, to fend off any requests of an accounting, by accusing the beneficiaries of sibling rivalry, wasting estate funds and time. 

Are you kidding me! Once labeled as having been infected with sibling rivalry, everything you say is seen as jealousy and mischief. Now it is fair game to be shot down as without merit to the matters at hand. Wow, here we go again! 

There is a third focus for billable hours — fending off sibling rivalry as defined by the trustee’s hired counsel. He/she will define that ailment, and dismiss anything now labeled to be not relevant. Upsetting to the trustee/executor’s need to focus on administration of the trust. The trustee/executor, can talk with their counsel on how sibling rivalry is obstructing and interfering with their expediting the speedy resolution of the estate.

Of course, this is simply a new reason to delay, deny and bill out of the slush fund of the estate. As that lawyer has said, it is not over until the money is gone. They can petition the Probate court, and ask for a set aside of estate money, to be held and not distributed to the beneficiaries, as one or more of them might litigate. This “POSSIBLE LITIGATION BY BENEFICIARIES” is presented to “your honor,” who will allow a huge sum of trust assets to be set aside and not distributed. No accounting has to be given to the Judge, at the close, showing how it was used. It can be frittered away in talking on the phone, meetings, conversations, etc. It does not even matter about what. It is assumed that the trustee/executor, is ethical and transparent, and truly has the protective best interest of the assets and the beneficiaries.

So their counsel begins obstructing and hiding requested documents, under the excuse that it could lead to possible litigation. Documents, will not be distributed to beneficiaries, until after the estate is closed, and even then, many and any that would incriminate will simply be left out of the disclosure. If it comes out later, after closure, that documents actually existed, and would have made a difference, the beneficiary has to hire a lawyer again, and file a new case against the trustee/executor, but since they signed the waiver, it reduces credibility to judge or jury, as to why the beneficiary signed a waiver. And an explanation would simply sound like an excuse. 

This new case and issue will be costly to the beneficiary, who has already gone through a few years of extreme cruelty. It seems you will never be free from the horror of inheriting. You will be asked, prior to closure of the estate, to sign another waiver to hold trustee, executor, counsel and anyone else, harmless from legal process if you want the estate to close. If you don’t, then here comes the trustee’s/executor’s counsel again, to intercede by petitioning the Probate court to demand you sign. If you don’t sign, you will have more costs, billable hours by multiple lawyers and more time in this “fun house of frightening objects flying out at you from around every corner.” 

And, you sign all of these documents before you actually know the facts and see the documents. Beneficiaries, are threatened, demeaned, discredited and labeled as high maintenance, troublemakers, and in my case, I was called “a difficult old lady.” I kid you not! And, as they enjoy this haughty privilege, they are also billing, for more billable hours.

My particular situation began with what everyone called a simple Will. It has cost over $200,000 to administer, and is now at two years and counting. We are still waiting for closure, but since the IRS extended the tax due date to May 17, 2021, the trustee has delayed filing the taxes until mid-May, allowing many weeks of billable hours.

If you can, imagine Woody Woodpecker, from years gone by, if you are old enough. He had that theme song; Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha; ha, ha, ha, ha, ha; that’s the Woody Woodpecker song.

So, here is the version I thought of, when my trustee’s lawyer, who calls himself J. D. Supra (a spin on Latin legal terms, supra meaning above, and J. D. for Juris Doctorate). Mr. Supra, or J. D. as I have lovingly come to know him, refers to himself as a specialist in sibling rivalry. His “handle” comes from the visual, of him flying through the air, like a super hero, or in this case, a supra hero. He comes to save the day for the executor/trustee from those horrible beneficiaries who cause problems by jealousy and infighting over the estate.

I close with my version of the Woody Woodpecker song, it goes this way: billable hours, billable hours, that’s the J. D. Supra song, billable hours, billable hours, he will count them up all day long, billable hours, billable hours, that’s the J. D. Supra song!

This is just a brief story of being a beneficiary. I thought of making it long and boring, but in the end, I wanted it to be funny, ridiculous and represent the humor side of when you get caught up in the system. Don’t take it too seriously, it will run its natural course. I do say get an attorney right away to represent your voice. Otherwise, you will have none. By the time you realize you need one, a year or more has passed, and the estate has been pillaged and bills have run amok, out in the weeds of billable hours.

A thank you to my own counsel, attorney, and his staff. They have been magic and a constant guide through the darkness. Trying to grieve the loss of my Mother, who was 99, and my favorite old lady to have tea with; to lose her beautiful gift to me in a quagmire of Cirque Du Soleil is tragic. I have never had abundance, so this is incredible to contemplate, even more so, to remember my Mom and Dad with gratitude. I hope I am able to do them proud, and be a wise sentry of the legacy. I have been a single Mom, had to do bottom jobs, even though I had two college degrees. Reason, my oldest child is developmentally disabled and required special care; still does. So I worked night jobs, and raised three kids the hard way, on my own. No social services and no privileges. 

I am proud to have walked the path of independence and adding to my knowledge. So, I have created my own ways of holding my truth. Long ago, I created and ran a legal clinic in Fort Bragg. I served every question at no cost. I earned nothing, but I learned much. I plan to start a blog to be able to answer questions again, like I did before. Experience is too precious to waste. 

Love to you all, and may your day be blessed. If you ever do inherit, remember to breathe, hire a lawyer and remember what I have said. For this will be a situation where no matter what you do or don’t do, it will run its own course. And remember, it will end!

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