Six Important Facts if You Find Yourself in the Probate Court

Introduction

While avoiding probate has been a national pastime for decades, in some circumstances, probate is inevitable. This article discusses six key facts for those who find themselves in the probate court – because of the loss of a loved one; because a family member is no longer able to care for themselves; you are an heir at law or the beneficiary under a will; or you are a fiduciary with important responsibilities, such as a trustee, guardian, agent under a power of attorney, administrator or executor.

This article is based on my 15 years as a sitting Connecticut Probate judge in one of the busiest Connecticut Probate Courts, 22 years experience as a practicing Connecticut estate planning and probate attorney, and, just as importantly, my personal experience in probate with my own family.

Informality of Connecticut Probate Courts

One strength of the Connecticut probate system is the relative informality of the probate court compared to other state and federal courts. Many (but not all) probate matters do not require representation by an attorney. The probate clerks will be happy to provide you with information, give you the forms you need, and to answer your questions.

The purpose of the probate court is to give interested parties a way to keep track of what’s going on in a case, to examine filings (such as accountings, inventories and motions) before a decision is made, and to be heard by the judge if you have questions or an objection to what’s before the court on your matter.

With the exception of confidential matters (those involving children, adults with intellectual disability, or matters that are specifically adjudicated to be confidential in part or their entirety), all probate proceedings are open to the public. However, only interested parties may participate in a hearing. So, while the public may attend any hearing on a non-confidential matter, only interested parties may ask questions or make their position known to the judge in the hearing.

All probate documents are open to public inspection with the exceptions above, tax filings, medical records, and records specifically adjudicated to be confidential.

The Role of the Probate Clerk

If you are involved in a probate case and are not represented by an attorney (referred to as a pro se party), it’s important to understand that information a probate clerk gives you (such as forms) is highly dependent on the facts of your case. Seemingly minor changes in the facts of a case can have dramatic consequences for probate proceedings. For that reason, it’s essential that the information given to the probate clerks is accurate and complete.

For example, if real property is owned by a decedent in survivorship with someone who has survived the decedent, the probate proceeding may be completely different than if the decedent owned the real property with another as tenants in common. Only by reviewing the deed recorded with the town clerk in the municipality where the property is located is it possible to know the correct title to real property.

Probate Without an Attorney

For pro se parties, it’s very important to slowly, carefully and completely fill out probate forms. This is not a process that should be done in haste.  At least 50% of the forms received at the Region 22 Probate District are either incomplete or incorrect. This results in delays and potentially added cost that can be easily avoided by taking one’s time in filling out the forms and carefully checking them before submission to the court and the interested parties.

Another point to keep in mind is that the probate clerks are there to help you through the probate process. Listen carefully to what they tell you – I suggest writing it down – so that you can refer back to it when you return home. Arguing with the clerk will only add to the frustration and time the process involves.

While the clerks work hard and spend time with pro se parties to help them, there are two things they are not allowed to do: fill out forms and give legal advice. If there’s a question on a form you don’t understand, the clerk will be able to explain what is being asked. Clerks cannot tell you what answer to provide or fill the form out for you. Giving legal advice is something that attorneys and clerks in Connecticut housing courts are allowed to do; no one else – including probate clerks – are allowed to give legal advice.

Common examples of questions for legal advice include “When can I pay the bills (in a decedent’s estate)?”; “Can I distribute the estate now?”; “My 88 year old father is unable to make decisions for himself – what do you suggest I do?” Answers to these questions may only be answered by a Connecticut attorney who has extensive probate experience. I don’t suggest using attorneys who have minimal or no probate experience.

I’m always amazed at the number of people who come to the probate court following the advice of bank tellers, social workers, contractors, nurses, cashiers, family members, and neighbors.  The advice of non-attorneys, no matter how well-intentioned, should be avoided.  There are also a number of websites that claim to provide legal advice to the public for proceeding through probate without an attorney.  While the information on some of those sites may be accurate, it’s no substitute for talking with the probate clerk and retaining a probate attorney.

Probate Matters Requiring an Attorney

Even though many matters in Connecticut probate courts do not require legal representation, there are a number that can rarely be done correctly without an attorney. Examples include full administration decedent’s estates (where an administrator or executor is appointed); applications for appointment of a conservator; change of name of a minor where the parents are not in agreement; when you are a fiduciary – an administrator or executor of a decedent’s estate; an agent under a power of attorney; a trustee; a conservator; or a guardian of the estate of a minor.

In my 15 years on the bench, I’ve seen people get themselves into difficult situations because they did not retain legal counsel. Sometimes these people made serious mistakes that created potential civil and criminal liability, particularly if they were a fiduciary. Those mistakes could have been avoided if a competent probate attorney had been retained.

In addition to the cases listed above, many people still choose to retain legal counsel for other matters in the court – affidavit estates where no fiduciary is appointed, tax purpose only decedent estates, and a variety of other probate matters.

The most common reason I hear as to why a party who really should retain an attorney does not is the perceived cost.  For those unfamiliar with probate, there are misperceptions that attorney fees are much higher than they actually are.  A role of the probate judge is to ensure that the fees charged by attorneys are reasonable. I have found that the vast majority of attorneys who practice in probate court charge reasonable fees. I have, on occasion, reduced or disallowed attorney’s fees.  If you understand your attorney’s billing practices and fee structure before retaining him or her, there will be few surprises when your case is concluded and the attorney presents her or his final invoice.  In Connecticut, the Rules of Professional Conduct require an attorney to have a fee agreement in writing with every new client.  If you retain an attorney, pay careful attention to her or his fee structure in the representation agreement.  If there’s something that you don’t understand, ask the attorney to clarify it.

Because many matters in Connecticut probate courts may be completed without the services of an attorney, some believe that all probate matters can be correctly completed without an attorney. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Probate is a very specialized area of the law. Only an attorney who is a member of the Connecticut bar is qualified to represent parties before Connecticut probate courts. I suggest only considering attorneys with extensive probate experience to represent you in a probate matter.

Often, those who come to the probate court do so because they are facing a difficult situation: the death of a loved one, or perhaps a relative or close friend is no longer able to take proper care of themselves because of a medical condition or trauma. In those cases, having an attorney advise you will go a long way toward providing peace of mind in an already stressful situation.

No Private Communication with the Judge

It’s also important to understand a fundamental concept of our judicial system – ex parte communication. Ex parte communication refers to a situation where a party to a case engages the judge in communication in the absence of the other parties.  Such communication can leave the other party or parties at a disadvantage, or, at the very least, create the appearance of bias on the part of the judge.

Except in a very few, narrowly defined circumstances, ex parte communication is strictly prohibited. From a practical standpoint, this means that if you have a matter before the court, you cannot have a private conversation with the judge, or send the judge written (hardcopy or electronic) communication in the absence of the other parties. All oral communication with the judge may only take place during a scheduled hearing where all parties have been noticed. As for written communication, if all parties are not copied on it, a judge may not read it, unless it is read aloud during the course of a scheduled and properly noticed hearing.

 

Family Conflict in Probate

Another area that frequently manifests itself in probate proceedings is family conflict. Family conflict is ubiquitous – it happens in all or nearly all families. While it can be difficult to set aside these differences, it is absolutely essential to do so in probate matters. In the probate court, parties in conflict often end up prolonging the proceedings, running up attorney fees, and costing everyone – including themselves – more money. Most of that could be avoided if the parties simply decided to put aside their differences if only for the time it takes to complete the probate process.

THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AND SHOULD NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE. FOR ADVICE AS TO YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION PLEASE CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY.

Copyright © 2017 Domenick N. Calabrese. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be disseminated, reproduced or used without the express written consent of the author.

For more information on Connecticut estate planning and probate, please visit the Connecticut Estate Planning Blog at   https://ConnecticutEstatePlanningSite.com

For more articles and presentations by Dom Calabrese, visit his website at https://DCalLaw.com

 

How Often Should You Review Your Estate Plan?

Estate plans are created at a specific point in time. Having an estate plan is important for many reasons. Some of these reasons include ensuring your wishes are followed for who will receive your assets after you pass away; providing for loved ones; minimizing estate taxes and maximizing family wealth for future generations; maintaining your independence should you become incapacitated; avoiding conservatorships; avoiding court intervention; minimizing family conflict; asset protection; and ensuring that your wishes for end of life health care are honored in the event you are unable to communicate with your healthcare professionals.

It’s been said that the only constant in life is change. This truth has significant implications for estate planning. Changes in your circumstances – death of a spouse, marriage, divorce (yours or your children’s), birth of a child or grandchild, significant changes in your health or financial circumstances, or moving to another state – may require an update to your estate plan.

The law is in a constant state of change. Here in Connecticut, major changes to the Connecticut estate and gift tax will become effective on January 1, 2018. In 2016 and 2017, Connecticut law governing powers of attorney have seen the most dramatic changes in many years. These changes may affect your estate plan – the only way to know for sure is to have a qualified attorney review your estate plan.

It’s also important to review your estate plan every 3-5 years.

If you have no estate plan, it’s important to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney to discuss creating an estate plan.

It’s easy to forget about estate planning. Most people put off estate planning entirely. After all, there are no consequences to not having an estate plan until a dramatic life event – such as incapacity or death occurs. Unfortunately, once those events take place, there are very few options available compared to those at the disposal of those who plan well in advance of such events.

There is a common – and erroneous – perception that estate planning is only for the very wealthy. That is an unfortunate fact. In my 15 years on the bench as a Connecticut probate judge, I see people from all walks of life who would have been much better off had they put an estate plan in place.

THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AND SHOULD NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE. FOR ADVICE AS TO YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION PLEASE CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY.

Copyright © 2017 Domenick N. Calabrese. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be disseminated, reproduced or used without the express written consent of the author.

For more articles and presentations by Dom Calabrese, visit his website at https://DCalLaw.com

Living Wills

In a recent post, I discussed health care representatives as a tool that adults may use to plan for incapacity. Another tool that may be used along with an appointment of health care representative is the advance health care directive, commonly known as a Living Will.

Of course, as long as someone is able to understand their medical condition and can communicate with their health care providers, there is no need for a health care representative or Living Will. It’s when someone can’t actively take part in health care decision-making that a Living Will and health care representative may be useful.

Effective October 1, 2006, Connecticut law allows Living Wills to include direction on any aspect of a person’s own health care. Previously, Living Wills were limited to direction regarding life support only.

A Living Will is a written document. It directs a physician or other health care professional to provide or to not provide medical, surgical or other measures should a terminally ill patient become incapacitated.

A Living Will must be prepared and signed well before incapacity strikes. Once someone becomes incapacitated, it’s not possible for him or her to effectively execute a Living Will. Certain formalities must be observed or the Living Will won’t be valid. A “do it yourself” approach is not recommended. I’ve seen situations as a Probate Judge where a well-meaning friend or relative “drafted” a Living Will, which was then signed. Because the Living Will document was not correctly understood, the patient’s “wishes” were the exact opposite of what the Living Will indicated.

In Connecticut, physicians and licensed medical facilities are granted immunity from criminal and civil liability should they remove or withhold life saving or life-sustaining measures for incapacitated patients who are permanently unconscious. In order for this liability protection to apply, however, a number of requirements must be in place. One of them is that the physician or medical facility considers the patient’s wishes.   A Living Will is one way to document and communicate your wishes to others.

In addition to a Living Will, there are other ways you can communicate what measures you would and would not want should you become unconscious. Discuss your wishes with your healthcare provider, and have him or her make a note of it in your medical record. Discuss your wishes with family members before there is a crisis. This can go a long way toward ensuring your wishes are both known and followed, in addition to providing family members with some measure of peace of mind should they need to make such decisions. The best approach to making it more likely your wishes will be followed is to use all of these measures so everyone – your family and health care providers – are well aware of your wishes, and they are documented.

THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AND SHOULD NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE. FOR ADVICE AS TO YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION PLEASE CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY.

Copyright © 2017 Domenick N. Calabrese. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be disseminated, reproduced or used without the express written consent of the author.

For more articles and presentations by Dom Calabrese, visit his website at http://www.domcalabreselaw.com

Advantages of Living Trusts Part 3: Providing for Children

I recently had a discussion with a married couple with two small children. They were interested in providing for their children if something were to happen to both parents.

One way to accomplish this would be with a living trust. The parents could create a living trust, place assets into the trust, and name a trustee in addition to or in place of the parents. If both parents were to pass away while their children were still young, the trust could provide money to pay for the children’s education, medical care, housing, clothing, or anything else for the children’s benefit.

Once the children attained a certain age – it could be any age – 18, 25, 30, or some other age – anything left in the trust would then be turned over to children in their adulthood.

The trustee – the person responsible for managing the trust – would use the trust money to pay for whatever of the children’s expenses the trust was designed to cover. The trustee would be bound by the terms of the trust to be sure the trust assets were properly invested, and the trustee would be liable if he or she wasted trust assets.

Providing for the management of assets for minor children is important – if it’s not done with a trust or custodial account, a guardianship estate might need to be established in the probate court.   In addition to “youth” – those under the age of 18 – there are other reasons why managing assets for the benefit of an adult may be needed. For example, it can be very challenging for a young adult to responsibly manage a significant asset. Likewise, adults in their 30s or older may lack the sophistication or maturity to responsibly manage a significant asset. Perhaps providing support for someone with serious creditor issues, or someone who is easily taken advantage of by the unscrupulous is a goal. A parent or grandparent with adult children or grandchildren in difficult marriages may want to ensure that a potential “ex” spouse doesn’t end up with some or all of assets intended for their own child or grandchild. In all of these cases, a living trust could provide for the management of assets and support of loved ones without giving them the asset outright.

Trusts can be funded with any of a variety of assets – real estate, financial accounts, life insurance proceeds, and bequests in a will are just a few potential sources of trust assets.

In my next article, I’ll review how living trusts can be used to reduce Connecticut estate tax liability.

Living trusts are not appropriate for everyone. Only after consulting a qualified, ethical attorney who will take the time to understand your situation and objectives, and explain your options, is it possible to make an informed decision as to whether a living trust is appropriate for you.

Copyright © 2017 Domenick N. Calabrese. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be disseminated, reproduced or used without the express written consent of the author.

THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AND SHOULD NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE. FOR ADVICE AS TO YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION PLEASE CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY.

For more articles and presentations by Dom Calabrese, visit his website at http://www.domcalabreselaw.com

 

 

Advantages of Living Trusts Part 2: Legal Incapacity

Living trusts offer many advantages. One of them is providing for the management of assets when the person who created the trust is incapacitated. However, this is only true for assets that are moved into the trust first. Simply creating a trust without moving assets into the trust will not provide this benefit.

Let’s look at how this might work. Mary Jones creates a living trust, naming herself and her son William as co-trustees of the trust. William’s reliability must be beyond question; unreliable co-trustees could easily mismanage or even steal from the trust.

Mary then moves some or all of her assets, including her financial accounts, into the trust – a very important step. She also arranges for her regular income to be automatically deposited into the trust accounts.

A few months later, Mary suffers a stroke and becomes incapacitated. She can’t write or communicate, and has a very limited understanding of what’s going on. Because she moved her financial accounts into the trust, William (as co-trustee) is able to manage Mary’s finances through the trust. He may use the money in trust accounts to pay Mary’s bills. If Mary’s income automatically gets deposited into trust accounts, William will also be able to manage that income.

If Mary hadn’t established the trust and moved her financial accounts into it, institutions where Mary’s accounts are located might not work with William or other family members. Even if Mary appointed an attorney in fact through a durable power of attorney, it’s possible that the financial institutions might choose to ignore the power of attorney.

This could create a number of problems. No one would know the value of Mary’s assets; it would be difficult or impossible to manage Mary’s affairs. There would be no access to Mary’s assets to pay her bills. Mary’s bills, such as insurance, mortgage, taxes and utilities might not get paid, resulting in foreclosure, interest and penalties for unpaid taxes, termination of insurance coverage, utilities being shut off, or collection action against Mary. Family members would not know what Mary could and could not afford.

Without the trust in these circumstances, a family member might need to make an application to the probate court to appoint a conservator of the estate for Mary so that her bills could be paid and her assets managed. Involuntary conservatorship proceedings in the probate court can be time consuming and expensive. This adds to the stress that Mary’s family must deal with in addition to the significant challenges posed by Mary’s stroke and resulting legal incapacity.

Living trusts are not appropriate for everyone. Attending “free seminars” promoting “one size fits all” living trust packages is NOT a good reason to pay for a living trust. Only after consulting a qualified, ethical attorney who will first carefully examine, understand and explain your options, can you make an informed decision whether a living trust is appropriate for you.

THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AND SHOULD NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE. FOR ADVICE AS TO YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION PLEASE CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY.

Copyright © 2015 Domenick N. Calabrese. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be disseminated, reproduced or used without the express written consent of the author.

For more articles and presentations by Dom Calabrese, visit his website at http://www.domcalabreselaw.com

Advantages of Living Trusts Part 1

Recently a friend asked me about living trusts. A family member of his placed their assets in a living trust. When they passed away, my friend was impressed at how quickly that family member’s assets were transferred after death without involving the probate court. My friend asked whether a living trust would be right for him, and the differences between a living trust and a will.

There is a great deal of confusion about trusts. This is partly due to the claims some purveyors of living trusts make in order to sell more of their “one size fits all” living trust packages.

Like anything else, living trusts have advantages and disadvantages. It is only after these advantages and disadvantages are understood that an informed decision can be made as to whether a living trust makes sense for a particular person. Too often people believe that because a friend or relative had a living trust that it would be appropriate for them to have one as well. Everyone’s situation is different, and each person has different priorities. These differences are why it’s essential that an attorney takes the time to understand his or her client’s situation and objectives before discussing options, including living trusts, for estate planning. I attended a living trust seminar where the presenter stated that anyone owning assets that exceeded a certain value should have a living trust. Just because someone’s assets exceed a certain value is not, all by itself, a sufficient basis for deciding whether or not a living trust is appropriate.

A trust is simply a means of owning assets, such as accounts in financial institutions, stocks, bonds, real estate, motor vehicles, and other assets. A trust may be the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

A will is a document that outlines how a person wants their solely-owned assets distributed after they pass away. A will has no utility during someone’s lifetime; it only has legal effect after the person passes away and the will is admitted to the probate court. Without these two events, a will is simply a piece of paper and does not determine what happens to someone’s assets during their lifetime.

To review all the different kinds of trusts would take many pages. In this series of articles, I’m going to briefly discuss just a few features of trusts. A living trust is created and usually funded by someone while they are alive. Testamentary trusts, on the other hand, do not come into existence until someone passes away and their will, which contains a trust, is admitted to the probate court, and an acceptance of trust is filed with the court.

In my next article, I’ll begin to review some of the advantages of living trusts.

THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AND SHOULD NOT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE. FOR ADVICE AS TO YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION PLEASE CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY.

Copyright © 2015 Domenick N. Calabrese. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be disseminated, reproduced or used without the express written consent of the author.

The New Connecticut Uniform Power of Attorney Act: Part 3 – Authorities of the Agent

One of the many new features of the Connecticut Uniform Power of Attorney Act is the new authorities that the person creating the power of attorney (called the “principal”) may grant to someone else (called the “agent”). Technically, even before Connecticut’s new law was enacted, a power of attorney could be drafted to include many powers not in the statutory short or long form template. Most of these “new” powers are related to estate planning and asset management.

Under the new law, the agent may be given power to create, revoke or terminate a living trust. This provision can be useful to help in management of assets such as real property and bank accounts, as well as in estate planning.

In the realm of estate planning, the agent might also be granted the authority to disclaim property. With a disclaimer, someone who is entitled to receive property from an inheritance or as a named beneficiary in a life insurance policy, to name just two examples, could refuse to take that property. When that happens, the next person in line to receive the disclaimed property would be entitled to it. Disclaimers are often, but not exclusively used when a relative passes away leaving assets (such as a bank account or real estate) to their husband, wife, son, daughter, grandchildren, or someone else.

Another power that the agent might be granted is the authority to make gifts from the assets of the principal. For example, the principal may have a tradition of giving gifts to relatives at birthdays or holidays, or gifts for a specific purpose, such as college tuition. Authority to make gifts could allow the agent to continue these types of traditions, especially if the principal becomes incapacitated.

Changing rights of survivorship is another area that an agent might be granted authority. It’s common for real property, particularly residential real estate, to be owned in survivorship. One advantage of survivorship property is that upon the death of one of the owners, the remaining owner or owners would automatically receive the deceased owner’s share of the property without probate proceedings. However, probate applications would still be necessary in such a situation to obtain release of Connecticut estate or succession tax liens and release of lien for Connecticut probate fees.

Related to changing rights of survivorship is the authority to change beneficiary designations. Beneficiary designations operate in a similar way to survivorship, except that a beneficiary essentially has no right to the asset until the owner passes away. Life insurance policies and accounts in financial institutions are two examples of property that commonly has a beneficiary designation.

The new law provides for other powers that may be granted under a power of attorney.

For information and advice as to your particular situation, consult a qualified attorney who has experience with estate planning and powers of attorney.

THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE, NOR SHOULD IT BE RELIED UPON, AS LEGAL ADVICE. CONSULT A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY FOR ADVICE REGARDING YOUR SITUATION.

COPYRIGHT 2016 DOMENICK N. CALABRESE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. COPYING, DISSEMINATION AND DISTRIBUTION WITHOUT THE EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.