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Los Angeles Probate & Estate Administration Law Blog

Probate judge orders Harper Lee's will to be sealed

Following the death of Harper Lee, author of the historic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," literary fans in California and across the United States of America mourned the loss of the 89-year-old recluse. Although quite famous for her initial novel and the subsequent "Go Set a Watchman," Lee largely spent the remainder of her life outside of the public spotlight. Because of this, a probate judge ruled that Lee's will would remain sealed.

"Mockingbird" was originally published back in 1960, and yet has remained an enduring classic of American literature and is one of the best-selling books of all time. A film adaptation was released in 1962 and is perhaps almost as well loved as the original novel. Despite this recognition, Lee remained outside of fame's spotlight and remained in her childhood town of only 6,300 residents. Even there, she typically kept to herself, although before her sister's death the pair would sometimes visit a local café during quieter hours.

Former deputy mayor appeals probate ruling

Estate plans are created for any number of uniquely personal reasons, but for many people, one of the most popular reasons for establishing a cohesive plan is to exercise greater control over assets after death. However, some individuals in California have a different opinion on the matter and actually do not have much of an opinion about what happens to their assets. In these cases it can seem like a waste of time to create an estate plan, but wills, trusts and other important documents also play another vital role -- they can help prevent family feuds that might otherwise lead to drawn-out probate litigation.

An out-of-state former government official is appealing a recent ruling by a probate court in his state. The ruling leaves him on the hook for $2 million, which must be paid back to his father's estate. Not only did the probate court determine that he had wrongly received this amount, but it ruled that half of it should have been given to his sister, who had been cheated out of her rightful inheritance.

Protect your elderly loved ones through conservatorships

It can be especially difficult to witness a loved one age and develop serious, devastating health disorders that affect his or her mental capacity. Although most people in California understand how important estate plans are, not everyone has the legal protections in place to avoid being taken advantage of. When dementia or other illnesses leave an elderly family member exposed and vulnerable, it is often up to loved ones to establish necessary conservatorships to keep that individual safe.

Health care powers of attorney and living wills are common features of solid estate plans, but there are some individuals who fail to include these documents or who skip creating an estate plan altogether. The lack of an advanced health care directive might be due in part to the common myth that estate plans only address what happens after a person passes away. However, without any of these important documents, elderly disabled individuals are often in vulnerable situations where they can easily be taken advantage of.

How can I keep my estate from going through probate?

Probate might be an understandably important aspect of estate law, but it is not a necessarily fun process to go through. However, not every California estate will have to pass through probate, and the reasons why can vary. Residents who want to avoid having their estate probated can take certain preventive measures before their death.

If an asset is owned by more than one individual, such as in the case of a married couple, then there is no need for it to go through probate. Instead, the ownership of a jointly-owned asset will automatically default to the other surviving individual. While marriage is one way of creating community property, joint tenacy -- the joint ownership of a property -- can be established with another individual. This can be helpful for widowed or unmarried individuals.

Probate battle closed after 7 years

The validity of a will is a popular point of contention during difficult probate battles. While most people in California likely do not anticipate their will being challenged, it can happen when a family member feels spurned or when someone might have a legitimate reason to be suspicious. However, simply because a will's validity can be challenged does not mean that the probate process related to it will be a breeze.

An out-of-state battle over a will lasted for about seven years before a judge recently rendered a verdict on the matter. Two siblings -- a sister and brother -- butted heads when their father's will was submitted in 2009. The sister believed that her brother had wrongly influenced their father as he struggled with dementia in his remaining years.

Keep loved ones away from probate, employ a proper estate plan

Family life is evolving; indeed, it appears to have been rapidly changing for quite some time. From divorced and remarried families -- also referred to as blended families -- to cohabitating couples, the face of California families is perhaps very different than what it was generations ago. So-called non-traditional families are more likely to end up in probate, where a person's estate is not entirely in clear hands.

According to California state law, when a person passes away without any type of will, the closest living relative will receive that person's estate. While this seems quite sensible at first glance, it can prove troublesome for some. Cohabitating couples -- those who purposely choose to shirk marriage while still committing to one another -- are especially vulnerable to this law.

David Bowie's death shines light on trust use in estate planning

After fans in California mourn the deaths of their favorite or most idolized celebrities, they often begin discussing the fate of those celebrities' estates. Unfortunately, most discussions concerning celebrity estate plans circle around the estates' deficiencies and, in some cases, squabbling families left in the throngs of probate. At first glance, it does not appear that David Bowie's recent death will incite any such distress among surviving family members. Most people believe that the singer and actor utilized at least one trust -- although likely more -- to ensure the smooth transition of his estate after his death.

Because of his battle with liver cancer, Bowie might have been intrinsically aware of the need for a tight and coherent estate plan. Although he did manage to record and release one last studio album, his diagnosis was terminal. With his long-time wife Iman and two children left to survive him, he likely understood the importance making sure that they were well cared for. Current reports speculate that Iman will receive the majority of his $200 million estate. His children are also slated to receive significant inheritances.

We take the fear out of the probate process in California

Fear is an involuntary response for most people upon hearing the word "probate." Many misconceptions concerning the process continue to perpetuate throughout California, needlessly adding stress to the lives of people who are already grieving the losses of loved ones. In reality, the probate process can be a helpful and necessary aspect of the estate administration process.

Most people create wills with the impressions that they will automatically exclude their estates from having to go through probate. However, state law requires that any estate worth more than $100,000 pass through probate, even in the presence of a will. During this time, the executor, or the person named by the deceased to handle the estate, goes to court in order to pay any estate taxes and the distribute assets to beneficiaries. In the event that a will is not present at the time of a person's death, the court appoints an administrator to fill in as an executor.

For most people, estate planning can't wait

Thinking about, much less planning, for the inevitable end of life can be extremely uncomfortable for many people. Because of this, crucial aspects of estate planning are often put off or neglected. After all, the future can seem so very far away, so why worry unnecessarily now? In reality, estate planning is not something that should be delayed.

Most people in California can still recall the case of Terri Schiavo. Schiavo made national news when her husband and parents were at odds over the issue of life support. After suffering severe and permanent brain damage, Shiavo languished in a vegetative state while being sustained through a feeding tube and other artificial measures. Schiavo's husband insisted that his wife would not have wanted to be on any type of life support and wanted to have the tube removed, while her parents opposed the removal and instead said they would continue to care for her. The battle over her care lasted for years, all of which could have been avoided by an advanced health care power of attorney.

When considering estate planning, think of family

The focus of estate planning is often about what will happen to a person's assets after he or she has passed away. Although this is a reasonable focus for estate planning, some people in California still continue to shirk the process on the basis that they simply do not care what happens to their possessions after they are no longer alive. While this course of thinking might be somewhat understandable, it does not give adequate regard to grieving family members who will be left behind to handle the estate administration process with no input or guidance.

Probate can be both a simple and yet highly complicated process. While state laws exist for what should happen to a person's belongings should they die without a will, the ownership of these assets must first revert to the courts in order to determine exactly who is entitled to what. This process can get messy when family members have dissenting views about the court's decision or when children lose their inheritance to a step parent.

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