Probate:  My personal story

Probate: My personal story

In 2014, after a long illness, my dad died.  Despite sound legal advice, he did not create a will or a trust and his entire estate was thrust into legal limbo. At the time, I was working fulltime as a teacher in another state and really didn’t know what would become of his assets.  My first call was to an attorney-at-law specializing in probate cases.  My dad’s estate was complicated with several past debts and liens which merited the services of a professional. My attorney’s skill and knowledge of the probate system proved indispensable, and we were able to successfully transfer ownership from my deceased father to his surviving children. At which time, I contacted a licensed realtor to facilitate the sale of the property. Two months later, we successfully sold the home and satisfied all liens and past debts. Quite honestly, it was one of the worst years of my life.  While grieving the loss of my dad, I was forced to travel back and forth to oversee the process. In addition, I was stuck with the task of removing personal belongings and liquidating household items accumulated from living in the same residence for forty years. It was a hardship I will not soon forget.

Fast forward to 2022 when my beloved cousin was found deceased in his Arizona home. Like my father, no estate plan existed. By now I am working as a realtor and able to help extended family proceed through the probate process and successfully sell the home in a timely fashion.  In addition, as a courtesy, I arranged home upgrades and a general property clean-up before listing went live. As a result of my efforts, my deceased cousin’s daughters were spared precious time away from their families and thousands of dollars in unnecessary travel and expenses.  

When my father passed, I vowed if I could ever help another person navigate the difficulties of probate court and estate liquidation, I would do it.  Your time is valuable and when time is lost, it diminishes chances of recovering a deceased loved one’s precious investment.  Probate is daunting task and no one should go it alone.  Here is my help-others guide to navigating a probate case:

  • Understand succession. In testate cases, where the deceased did not have a will or estate plan, assets follow a line of succession.  Family members often feel they are entitled to assets based on emotional ties and family history.  But that is not how it works in a court of law.  Many conflicts over a decedent’s estate could be resolved by simply understanding succession.  Particular nuances may exist from state to state, but it generally follows this order:  1) Decedent’s spouse, 2) children & grandchildren, 3) parents, 4) siblings.  A probate attorney can help you decipher complicated family succession issues involving death and half siblings.  
  • Agenda harmony is a must. Nothing is more detrimental to a probate case than family infighting.  Disagreements are expected, but agreement around a set of priorities is foundational.  If ever there was a time to put aside trivial issues and personal agendas it is during your probate case.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Keep the main thing the main focus.  Should someone contest an existing will or estate plan, probate court will resolve the dispute, but buckle up for the long haul.  Disputed wills require additional layers of legal support and lengthier timelines to resolve.  Estate disputes among heirs have a storied history, have you considered the cost?  Ask yourself: Is it worth it?  
  • Babysit the process. I mean that!  Probate may feel a lot like “hurry up and wait” which is to be expected, but it doesn’t need to be complicated by missed e-mails, unanswered phone messages, and unnecessary delays, etc.  I knew of one probate case that suffered a two-week delay simply because a client failed to return attorney e-mails.  You have to diligently manage communication and proactively respond to all the necessary legal steps outlined by your attorney.  Remember, time is money.  Your attorney has a lot of clients, you need to be 100% timely in all your correspondence.  Turn on notifications and put your attorney’s contact info in your favorites.  He or she is your new BFF for the duration of probate.    
  • Asset inventory & management. If you are the presumed beneficiary of estate, you will need to obtain a complete list of all assets for the court.  This includes stock, bonds, personal assets, cash, vehicles, home values, etc.  During this time, you are not permitted to liquidate estate items unless authorized by the court. For example, during my probate case, the judge granted permission for the sale of my dad’s boat and car before I was granted approval to sell his home. Those items were liquidated under the condition the proceeds stay within the estate.  Each state is different, but typically courts will work with you to manage assets.  It is important to take full inventory and not let Uncle Joe slip out the back door with valuable family heirlooms.
  • Find an NAR Realtor. Preferably one that understands probated properties.  You may need to obtain a real estate appraisal for the court.  A real estate professional can use data from recently sold properties to accurately assess its value as part of the asset inventory.  Additionally, a real estate professional may have valuable property management resources you might access while your case proceeds through the court—which can take months.  Ultimately, in the likelihood the property needs to be sold, you need their expertise in order to market the property at the earliest possible time. This is an important step in protecting the decedent’s investment and saving yourself a lot of grief. 

I survived my probate case, but not without a tremendously competent attorney and real estate professional.  It took nearly a year from legal filings to the close of the property sale.  Success is a matter of partnering with the right professionals while setting realistic goals and timelines.  As soon as your case hits the court, you may be flooded with offers from attorneys and agents seeking your business.  This may be a confusing time of trying to discern which direction to go. My advice is to carefully sift through those offers and perform due diligence. Not everyone has your best interests at heart. Look for reviews and experience. Too much is at stake in leaving it to chance.  I cannot guarantee it will be easy, but with the right professional partnerships that are honest and ethical, you can do this!  

Robert “Bob” Hunter, Sales Agent

Shar Rundio Team/ eXp Realty


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