Making a Claim in a Decedent’s Estate

When making a claim in a decedent’s estate, may the claimant rely on information provided by the Register of Wills through it’s online website? Or is such reliance risky?

It is important that one who seeks to make a claim in a decedent’s estate do so within 6 months following the decedent’s death, and that the claimant follow all the rules for making such a claim. Unfortunately, there is a risk in relying on the information provided by the online estate docket for a particular estate published by the Registers of Wills in Maryland. A recent case handled by William M. Gatesman illustrates this point.

In that case, the State of Maryland filed a $120,000 claim in a decedent’s estate for Medicaid benefits paid by the State of Maryland for the nursing home costs of the decedent before she died. The rules of court governing such claims require that, if the claim is filed with the Register of Wills, it must also be sent to the Personal Representative of the estate.

In this particular case, however, the Personal Representative never received a copy of the claim, and so, she denied the claim. Maryland petitioned the probate court for allowance of the claim. During the court hearing, evidence was presented that the State of Maryland had relied on the Register of Wills web page which, at the time the claim was made, listed a particular post office box address as the address of the Personal Representative. However, that address was incorrect – apparently the Register of Wills clerk made a typographical error when entering the address on the online docket page.

The question boiled down to this: even though the State of Maryland as claimant did not send a copy of the claim to the Personal Representative at the Personal Representative’s actual address, could the claim nevertheless be valid under the rules governing claims in a decedent’s estate because Maryland sent a copy of the claim to the address of the Personal Representative shown on the Register of Wills web page pertaining to the particular estate? In other words, could the claimant rely on the information set forth on the online estate listing published by the Register of Wills?

The resolution of that question depended on a thorough analysis of the statute and rules applicable to claims in an estate, and to a review of case law regarding statutory requirements of delivery of claims in contexts other than decedent’s estates (there being no law directly on point with respect to such estates). At the probate court hearing, William M. Gatesman was prepared to present such an analysis.

In the end, the probate court ruled that Maryland failed to meet the requirement that it deliver a copy of the claim on the Personal Representative of the estate, and the Personal Representative’s denial of the $120,000 claim was upheld (i.e. Maryland was not allowed to collect on its claim).

What this story reveals is that there are technical requirements a claimant must meet in order for such claimant to collect funds owed to the claimant from a decedent’s estate, and that reliance on information published by the Register of Wills may lead to the claimant losing its opportunity to collect on its claim.

William M. Gatesman stands ready to assist clients, either as claimants in an estate, or as Personal Representatives seeking to defend an estate against claims that are not properly submitted.

Obtaining Estate Information

Any person can obtain information relating to a decedent’s estate in Maryland through an internet search. The Maryland Register of Wills website allows anyone with an internet connection to search for the estate by the decedent’s name or by the name of the Personal Representative or executor of the estate.

The result of such search will be a listing of the estate docket. The docket list will show all documents filed in the estate, including the Will (if any), the petition for probate, the list of interested persons, the Inventory, and the estate administration accounts. One may order copies of any of these documents for a small fee. Some counties even provide for online ordering with online delivery of the documents.

A new feature of this online process allows people to search for claims against the estate, searching either by the decedent’s name or the name of the claimant or creditor of the estate.

This process can provide useful information to any person interested in the estate. While such process of obtaining information regarding decedent’s estates is simple, William M. Gatesman can assist individuals in obtaining information relating to a decedent’s estate if the process seems cumbersome or counter-intuitive.

William M. Gatesman, Attorney at Law

William M. Gatesman assists clients in Maryland and D.C. in the areas of elder law and Medicaid planning, asset protection planning, special needs planning, estate planning, probate and estate administration, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and health care decision making documents.  Mr. Gatesman is available to meet with clients in his offices in Rockville, Baltimore, Columbia, Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland, and is available to make house calls as needed in those locations and in other areas of Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Call 301-260-0095 for more information or to make an appointment.


Scroll down to read articles Mr. Gatesman has written to educate consumers and their advocates regarding legal developments that may affect their lives.

Ethical Considerations in Estate Planning

William M. Gatesman endeavors to work with clients in a manner that enable clients to realize their objectives taking into account all relevant considerations. Recently a colleague in the Maryland Bar gave a talk on taking into account a client’s values when doing estate planning. You may watch the embedded video of the presentation below. The substance of the talk begins about two minutes in on the video.

Medicaid Planning with Augmented Estate

There is a new law in Maryland that, effective October, 2020, will allow a surviving spouse to elect to take a portion of property passing as a consequence of a spouse’s death under an augmented estate formula. What does this mean?

Before the new law, a spouse only could elect to take a portion (one-third or one-half depending on the circumstances) of the estate that passed through probate. Lawyers who assist clients with Medicaid asset preservation planning took advantage of that by assisting couples to preserve all of their assets when one of the married couple needed nursing home care. The plan worked like this (and until October, 2020, will still work like this): If Husband is in a nursing home and Medicaid is paying for all of his care, then Wife could arrange to have all the assets to be titled in her name and pass outside of a probate estate.

Tools one may use to pass property outside of probate are bank and investment accounts that are designated “Pay on Death,” beneficiary designations, and life estate deeds. Before the new law takes effect next year, property passing by such tools will not be subject to an elective share by a surviving spouse.

That being the case, a husband and wife could set up their estate planning so that, if one them needs nursing home care in a nursing home for which Medicaid is paying the bill, and the spouse at home dies first, all of the couple’s assets could be protected rather than having those assets pass to the spouse in the nursing home causing Medicaid ineligibility.

Under the new augmented estate rules, however, all property held by the spouse at home would be subject to the elective share. Hence, in a case where Husband is in a nursing home and Medicaid is paying for all of his care, if Wife dies first, then it would appear at first blush that she no longer could shelter assets with”Pay on Death” accounts, beneficiary designations, and life estate deeds, because, under an augmented estate law, all of those assets are available for the spouse to elect to receive a portion.

Such is not the case with the Spousal Protection Wills that I have been using to do Medicaid planning for married couples, however. If a married couple employs the Spousal Protection Wills that I recommend, coupled with “Pay on Death” accounts, beneficiary designations, and life estate deeds that direct assets to the trust under the Will of the deceased spouse at home, which Spousal Protection Trust is for the benefit of the Husband in the nursing home in the example discussed above, then, under the new augmented estate law, the spouse in the nursing home only would be able to elect to take 11% of the property.

That being the case, if Husband is in a nursing home, and Husband and Wife own property (including the value of the house) worth $600,000, then, if Wife dies first, only $66,666 would have to be paid to the Husband in the nursing home under the new augmented estate legislation. Indeed, the administrators of the Medicaid program will insist that the spouse in the nursing home elect to take the spousal share or risk losing Medicaid benefits.

In this way, even after October, 2020, a married couple with $600,000 worth of assets, following a Medicaid asset preservation plan facilitated by this office, can preserve $533,334 even if the spouse at home dies before the spouse in the nursing home.

But doing a Medicaid asset preservation plan with this office would not stop at preserving all but 11%. There still are ways to protect all of the assets even under the new augmented estate law. That law provides other levers one could pull to effectively preserve all of the assets, just like a married couple can do now under current law. Those levers include: (i) spousal consent when the plan is put in place, (ii) judicial review under which a court may take into account, among other things, the degree to which the estate planning arrangement provides a benefit to the surviving spouse in the nursing home (which surviving spouse would be the beneficiary of 100% of the assets when using a Spousal Protection Trust), and, (iii) when an agent under a power of attorney or guardian must exercise the spousal election to comply with the Medicaid rules after the spouse at home dies, there is a mechanism by which a court order may be obtained to recognize that the interests of the spouse in the nursing home are much better served when he remains the beneficiary of 100% of the couple’s assets (albeit as beneficiary of a trust) as opposed to taking only 11% of those assets and losing Medicaid benefits for a period of time as a consequence of doing so.

William M. Gatesman has studied the new augmented estate statute well in advance of its October, 2020, effective date, and already is adjusting the estate plans for new clients to prepare for future asset preservation planning.

If you wish to review your estate plan with these thoughts in mind, please call us at 301-260-0095.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

“Keep your eye on the ball,” and “don’t drop the ball” are two oft used phrases to warn people that bad things can happen if they do not pay attention and take prompt action. Such is the case when someone dies.

I have known of circumstances where a parent died owning real estate, and due to inaction by family members, the property was foreclosed upon by the mortgage lender thereby costing the family more money than was necessary. Indeed, even with distressed properties, with prompt action one may open an estate and sell the property at better terms than what one might recover after a foreclosure.

Another example is from a recent court case. In that case, it did not come to light until years after death that a disabled person’s guardian improperly transferred the disabled person’s house to himself, and the court, by means of an internal oversight, did not take action to protect the disabled person’s property. By the time the heir who was rightfully entitled to inherit such property became aware of the matter, it was too late to recover the asset. Again, prompt action would have resulted in a more favorable outcome.

It is important that you keep your eye on the ball to ensure that proper steps are being taken to administer the affairs of a loved one after that person dies. Even if someone else had been designated to take charge of your loved one’s affairs, if that person has done nothing, then you need to step up to take charge of the situation yourself.

The penalties for inaction can be harsh. Rightful heirs and those intended to inherit a deceased person’s property could lose out on the opportunity to inherit if prompt action is not taken to protect one’s rights.

William Gatesman stands ready to assist clients in taking such prompt action, and is prepared to assist clients to protect their interests even when much time has passed since the death of a loved one.

Resolving Trust Matters Without a Court

Until recently, resolving issues relating to trusts where the governing instrument of the trust was silent concerning the matter was a complicated process. Generally, clients had to petition a court to interpret confusing terms in a trust, or to modify a trust, or to change a Trustee if no successor Trustee was named, or to do other things not spelled out in the trust agreement.

Since Maryland adopted the Maryland Trust Act, however, Trustees and beneficiaries can resolve matters without having to go to court. There are a number of statutory provisions that apply, including Estates and Trusts Code Section 14.5-111 which allows interested persons to enter into non-judicial settlement agreements.

A non-judicial settlement agreement may even be useful in cases where clients are unable to locate the trust document itself. Indeed, there are circumstances in which a non-judicial settlement agreement may be used to recreate the lost trust document so that property held in a trust bank account can be dealt with without the necessity of going to court, thereby saving clients time and money.

William M. Gatesman has worked with numerous clients to assist them in resolving trust problems by means of non-judicial settlement agreements.

Praise from an Old Client

I recently received the correspondence below.

Dear Mr. Gatesman,

I just wanted to reach out to you to  thank you for a case you worked on and won for my fiance, Althea’s mother, Beatrice, in about 2005

Beatrice was the widowed, unmarried partner of a man who died intestate in DC in 2004. I can’t remember the exact ownership of the real estate they held together , but it was not the typical joint, with survivorship held by most married couples.

Anyway, my fiancé and I are Long Term Care executives, and had previously encountered another elder law lawyer (on the opposite side of the bench) and found him to be a worthy opponent. So, when this situation arose I told my fiance to call the other lawyer, who was either unavailable or didn’t do real estate cases in DC. Anyway, what a stroke of luck for us that the other lawyer referred us to you to be our counsel!

I remember Althea telling me that you listened to the case details and remembered a similar case decided in 1924 in favor of the unmarried survivor widow, I think it may have been Campbell v District of Columbia.

So, it turned out Beatrice was the rightful owner of the real estate due to how the ownership was structured. She lived until her death in 2014 in the house. Her ability to live out her years in her home was due to your capable and competent representation. I remember Althea and I spoke to several 5 star DC Martindale lawyers at the time in 2005, and none of them gave us any encouragement about her retaining her home in the estate battle.

So , Mr. Gatesman, after all these years I wanted to reach out to you to thank you for your capable representation of Beatrice, who would likely have lost her home and been quite destitute but for your advocacy and representation.

Thank you for helping us get through that difficult period and helping Beatrice retain ownership of her home.

Is it a Problem to Hold Estate Funds in a Lawyer Escrow Account?

Maryland lawyers do not all agree as to whether a lawyer may hold funds belonging to a decedent’s estate in a general escrow account or a client funds account. While there may seem to be little guidance concerning the subject matter, there are at least two Maryland law cases that suggest that holding funds from a probate estate in a lawyer’s escrow account may be problematical.

In Attorney Grievance Commission v. Boehm, 293 Md. 476, 479 (footnote 2) (1982), the Maryland Court of Appeals states that “[i]t is the obligation of an attorney upon receiving funds representing the assets of an estate to deposit those funds in a separate estate account clearly identifiable by the name of the decedent. Such funds should not be commingled in an escrow account, general or otherwise.” Cf. Attorney Grievance Commission v. Owrutsky 322 Md. 334 (Md. 1991) .

In Attorney Grievance Commission v. Christopher, 383 Md. 624, 861 A.2d, 692, 699(2004), the same court noted with approval the conclusion of the lower court that made findings of fact, which lower court, in its “Conclusions of Law” stated that the lawyer violated the rules of professional responsibility when he, among other things, “mishandled estate funds when he closed the estate bank account . . . and transferred the funds into his trust account.”

I have written this article as a basis upon which I may continue to explore this issue with my colleagues.

— Bill Gatesman

Appointing a Successor Trustee when the Trustee Dies

The governing documents for trusts often designate who will serve as successor Trustee if the office of Trustee becomes vacant. However, sometimes the trust documents are silent concerning this issue, or sometimes none of the designated successors are able to fill a vacancy in the office of Trustee. What can you do in such a circumstance?

In the past, the only recourse a trust beneficiary had was to incur the time and expense of obtaining a court order to appoint a new Trustee. Now however, under Maryland’s recently new Trust Code, beneficiaries can take action to install a successor Trustee without going to court.

In order to do so, the law requires the beneficiary to identify all of the “qualified beneficiaries,” which includes beneficiaries currently eligible to receive income and/or principal distributions, and those who would be able to receive such amounts if the current beneficiaries cease to be eligible.

One provision of the Maryland Trust Code allows for appointment of a successor Trustee by unaimous agreement of the qualified beneficiaries. Another provision allows for persons who have an interest in the trust to enter into a non-judicial settlement agreement, which agreement, among other things, can provide for the appointment of a successor Trustee.

While these avenues of appointing a Trustee are less onerous than having to petition a court, it still is important that one follow all of the procedures set forth in the relevant statutes.

William M. Gatesman works with clients to appoint successor Trustees using these streamlined non-judicial methods, thereby enabling such clients to save time and money.