According to my Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, “litigo” is Latin for “to quarrel, dispute, brawl.” Of course, the most disputatious, quarrelsome brawlers in America are lawyers; therefore, IMHO, the fear of lawyers ought to be called “litigatophobia.” I suppose, you might quarrel with me and say the term ought to be “litigatorphobia,” but that might too easily be mistaken for alligator-phobia, and I really think the similarity of lawyers to alligators is much less than to many other non-human creatures I can think of. (Most are reptiles, but not all.)
My Advice: Fear Lawyers
My novel The Juror Hangs is a cautionary tale about jury duty. It is also—I now realize—the world’s first courtroom drama in which the really bad guys are the lawyers.
In one of my favorite cable shows, Ghost Hunters, the “investigators” claim that evil, angry spirits feed off both EMT (electro-magnetic transmissions) and human pain and suffering. I wonder if lawyers feed off EMT, too, because clearly they make their living from human pain and suffering.
Have you ever read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House? It’s a novel about how lawyers quarrel over a will until it’s entirely eaten up by their fees. Until I became involved in probate court myself, it seemed like a sort of cynical joke. No, it’s not a joke.
So, while I have dedicated this blog to warning prospective jurors about the perils of jury duty—and simultaneously defending the jury system against the lawyers who run the courtroom—I’m now adding a theme: beware the perils of probate court.
My Advice: Never Agree to be an Executor
Why should you never agree to be the executor of a will (or “personal rep,” in some states)?
- Unless the size of the estate is small, you will be required to work through a lawyer, even when it’s only a matter of posting a bond because the deceased did not die in the state where you reside. The lawyers’ fees for this minimal assistance will be substantial and may have to come out of your own pocket.
- The lawyer will require you to sign a contract stating that you are personally, financially responsible for any of the firm’s fees and expenses that exceed the value of the estate.
- No matter the value of the estate, anybody in the world can contest the will for any reason they can think of; when that happens you have to work with the probate court through a lawyer.
- If a will is contested, it’s likely to be contested by someone you know well or a family member; this instantly destroys your relationship (if any) with that person; the heir or heirs will blame you as much or more than the “quarreler.” In other words, there will never again be any peace in the family, and some of your loved ones will disown you.
So, if granny tells you one day that she has written a new will and named you as the executor:
- Ask her to let you read the will, perhaps in the presence of her lawyer, and see who is named as the alternate executor. If it is a responsible person, then find out if it is too late for her to change the name of the executor to that person, so you don’t have to resign in his favor when the time comes.
- If granny has named a cad as the alternate executor, then you need to be prepared for what you’re going to do when granny dies. Find out roughly what the estate is worth and likely to be worth when she dies. Learn about estate tax laws. Read up on probate in her state of residence. Determine what your liabilities will be if you become the executor of her will when she dies.
- Consider what you would do if you had to resign as executor after her death, and decide whether you might be wise to plan to contest the will so the cad can’t run slipshod over the rest of the family.
Probate court is nothing but an excuse for lawyers to line their pockets for doing nothing. I hear from certain reputable investment firms that revocable trusts can avoid probate altogether. That’s what I’m looking into these days—that is if I survive the stress of handling a will as executor in which I am not even an heir.