What can we learn about the Estate of Joseph (1998)? This is a case we went over in Wills & Trusts and it made a lot of things hit home. Mr. Joseph passed away intestate. Dying “intestate” is the legal way of saying you died without a will or testament. What happens in this case? The standard probate rules, set by the state, will apply to your estate. Generally, if your estate is under a certain size (150k) in CA then you can file a quick form, but if its over then you have to go through more rigorous probate.
Probate is the scary elephant in the room of estate planning. An estate planning attorney’s job is avoiding probate or at least reducing its impact on assets at the time of death. The state has rules that determines what it thinks the deceased person would have wanted. Of course, families can contest it and then they can argue about it in court, but end of the day its the state determining via rules where your assets go when you die..not you.
In the case of Estate of Joseph his daughter, Ms. Smith, filed a petition in probate court to be the executor of his estate. After that she filed a petition to receive all of the estate because she was the sole heir. But, then his brother challenged the petition.
What happened next is pretty much a telenovela. Evidence was produced that Ms. Smith was not the deceased daughter. Mr. Joseph took Ms. Smith in when she was 3 years old. He and his wife tried to adopt her a few times when she was a child. But her natural parents refused so after repeated requests they stopped trying and just went about their lives. Mr. Joseph had written a will leaving everything to his wife. He wrote it that way because he thought she would outlive him; when she didn’t he never updated his will.
Mr. Joseph paid for Ms. Smith’s college education and even gave her away at her wedding. The court agreed that Ms. Smith and the Joseph’s had a lifelong relationship and that they were close, but the fact is that she was not their daughter. When she turned 18 she should have been adopted as an adult to ensure her as heir, but they never got around to it. So what happens to the assets in the estate? The state decided to send it out to Mr. Joseph’s relatives in whatever order the rules of intestacy apply.
Lesson: Don’t leave for tomorrow what you could do today.