JCBA sponsors probate luncheon

By Frank Weir Legal News Jackson County Probate Judge Diane Rappleye joined local practitioners and Chief Deputy Probate Register Julie Kelley at a special probate luncheon sponsored by the Jackson County Bar Association on April 2. Long-time probate practitioners Bill Thompson and Jennifer Kelly answered questions along with Julie Kelley. Judge Rappleye spoke at the conclusion of the panel presentation. "I am so blessed to have the staff that I have," Rappleye said. "And probate attorneys are amazing. I have never met a probate attorney who is in this line of work without caring about people. It's mostly about emotions in probate court and we try to get feelings settled down and avoid hostile litigation. We don't want families ripped apart for the rest of their lives. We try to take a human perspective." She reminded lunch attendees that she shares the probate docket with a Circuit Court docket as well, causing the allocation of certain days for probate. She noted that family law cases have "skyrocketed" requiring more days out of the schedule. "This forces us to schedule out probate a lot further than we were hoping for but I am always ready to do emergency hearings. If you are going to lose out on a house sale if you don't get a hearing, or there is some other emergency, don't feel you are limited to probate days. Let your needs be known." Rappleye also beseeched attorneys to remind clients that legal advice is not available at the Probate Court window. "It happens all the time and we try to be accommodating and assist them but there is a fine line. You know how to do the practice, and it is an intimate practice, not a fill-in-the-blanks and get what you want practice." She concluded by reminding probate attorneys who engage in the informal estate process to make sure attached funeral bills indicate who has paid for the funeral. "I need to know who paid that bill," she said. She added that it is much more efficient if attorneys bring prepared proposed orders to hearings. "We are doing a lot of work for just three people so if you come with orders, we can always amend them at the hearing to indicate what needs to be done." Earlier, local probate attorney Bill Thompson discussed an unusual and potentially helpful probate technique called "agreement to alter shares" that can avoid litigation. He noted that the statute found its way into the probate code thanks to a dispute involving the family of automotive pioneers John and Horace Dodge. Both brothers died of the virulent 1918 flu pandemic that swept the world, Thompson said, with John dying in January of 1920 and Horace, in December of that year. Both acquired the illness while attending a convention in New York City he added. "John didn't treat his son so well in his will, in effect, disinheriting him. The young man initiated litigation and the Dodge family was involved in litigation for approaching 60 years," Thompson said. He noted that the case resolved when the family went to the legislature and asked for an amendment to the Probate Code allowing individuals to enter into an agreement even if at variance with the original will or instrument. In essence, "the law was changed at the behest of the Dodge family and a form of it is still with us. There is a similar provision in the Trust Code to resolve disputes involving trusts. "It's an interesting development that is unlikely to happen today since we don't have such powerful executives now." Probate attorney Jennifer Kelly also spoke offering recommendations regarding conservatorships. "In a conservatorship, a guardian ad litem is appointed to represent the person who is the subject of the petition. If that person objects, the judge will refer it for a second opinion and the family often gets upset," Kelly said. "It helps if you let the family know there is a possibility the person will object even though it may be obvious they do need one. They have a right to object and to a second opinion. Don't be disappointed if the GAL states to the court that the person wants a second opinion." She also strongly recommended careful record keeping for annual accountings in conservatorships. "Until the conservatorship ends, you will have annual accountings and this is one of the most frustrating parts in a conservatorship." She explained that often, responsible parties have handwritten receipts or no receipts at all, accounts are not balanced, and there is missing information. "Judge Rappleye is a stickler on accountings and she will not hesitate to punish those she thinks have mishandled funds. Responsible parties should not make cash withdrawals and must keep receipts. You need to be involved for the long haul and assist your client in getting all the paperwork in order. It makes it so much easier for the GAL to review accountings and report to the court." Kelly noted a case where $12,000 was listed as "extra expenses" for 2014. "The judge will want to know what this is for in the absence of any receipts or paperwork. It can't be faked. You need to go over the accounting and inventory with your clients before they file it," she said. Published: Thu, Apr 23, 2015