Lauren studied herself in the mirror and grinned. She looked absolutely perfect: Designer dress, classic heels, just a touch of make-up. Being the executor of her father’s will was going to be so much fun! There were going to be all those good-looking lawyers and the grouchy judge who silences everyone with the crack of a gavel. Oh, and maybe a sleazy witness or two. Some dirt bag seeking to steal her father’s property right from under her nose. Lauren could barely contain her excitement.
She made it to the courthouse in record time and walked into the assigned courtroom, confident she could take on whatever the judge threw at her. It looked just like the courtroom on Ironside and Boston Legal. Confidently, Lauren walked up to her lawyer and sat beside her. “This is so exciting,” she said. “What do I say? What do I do? Oh, what if the judge gets angry at me and cites me for contempt?” Lauren looked around. “And where is the prosecutor? Is he late?”
Her attorney glanced at her, amused. “This isn’t a criminal trial, Lauren. There is no prosecutor. We’re only here to get the judge’s permission to proceed with the probate of your father’s estate. The judge will review our petition and grant Letters Testamentary. That will give you permission to proceed with the administration of the estate. You don’t even need to be here. In fact, the judge may not even acknowledge you.”
“Oh, but what if one of my brothers or sisters shows up at the last minute to object? Not everyone is happy that I am the executor. I am sure my sister, Ann, would love to dig her greedy little hands into my father’s estate. Then we’ll have a real battle on our hands. Things could get really messy.”
The attorney laughed. “You’ve been watching too much TV, Lauren. This is not a trial. The judge usually just reviews the paperwork and approves it. I am only here to respond to questions and ensure the probate process continues to move forward. If your sister wants to object to anything, she will have to do it in accordance with the rules set forth by the court. She cannot just challenge your appointment without cause.”
A disappointed look crossed Lauren’s face, then she smiled. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and a mysterious, unknown stranger will show up and claim to be the brother I never knew I had. That could throw a real wrench into things.”
The lawyer shook her head and chuckled. “Lauren, we are only here for one reason and one reason only. To get approval to begin administering your father’s estate. If an unknown heir shows up—and that is very unlikely—we will deal with it when it occurs. But your father’s will is pretty specific. There is no indication that other heirs exist.”
Lauren sighed. This is so disappointing.
Probate Court hearings tend to be very simple and uneventful. Disputes and objections are rare. Often, the only reason to go to court is to secure the judge’s permission to act or submit paperwork for the judge’s approval. These simple steps are what keeps the probate process moving forward. And they are steps that can be taken only with the judge’s approval.
Very few trials occur in Probate Court simply because every effort is made to resolve disputes and challenges before they are brought before a judge. Settling an estate is a straightforward process, consisting of established steps and scheduled deadlines. It is the executor’s job to ensure that all tasks are successfully completed on a timely basis. When the required paperwork is completed and submitted to the court, the judge is most likely to review and approve it without any discussion. In fact, the Executor is often not even required to be present. The attorney handles everything.
Of course, there are rare instances of drama. The heirs may disagree over the sale of a property or their share of the estate. Those disinherited or omitted from a will may challenge the validity of that document. Some heirs may question the influence one relative had over the decedent and claim that the relative used that influence to unfairly enrich themselves. For whatever reason, estate matters can bring out the best and the worst in people, and when families are involved, unresolved issues and bad relationships can create tension and sometimes, outright animosity.
Such drama disrupts the probate process and often, creates significant delay. For that reason, when such disagreements occur, many probate courts send the parties to mediation. It is only when mediation is unsuccessful that matters proceed to a trial.
This lack of drama is a good thing. It ensures that the estate is settled in a timely fashion. And that permits the heirs to enjoy the decedent’s legacy, as intended.