Protecting Property After Death

Mother dies with a will leaving all of her assets to her three children in equal shares. One of her adult daughters receives Medicaid benefits because her assets are less than $2,000 and she has a very low income due to a disability. Such daughter is expected to receive a distribution of $25,000 from mother’s estate. This will cause daughter to lose her public benefits, which will be disastrous for daughter given the very high costs of her medications.

While daughter could petition a court to create a special type of Supplemental Needs Trust, known as a “d4a trust” and once she receives the distribution from the estate, deposit the funds into such trust, there are significant costs to establishing such a d4a trust, and there are administrative burdens associated with such trust, including annual reporting to the State Medicaid authority. Moreover, a d4a trust requires payback to the state for any Medicaid benefits if there are funds remaining in the trust when the trust beneficiary dies. Given the amount to be distributed, one must weigh whether it is worth the cost of setting up a d4a trust if there are other less costly alternatives.

Fortunately, Maryland law provides an opportunity for a trust to be created in a simpler way. Under the Maryland Discretionary Trust Act, a trust may be established for a beneficiary, and the assets in the trust will not be considered to be available resources for Medicaid purposes. Moreover, unlike a d4a trust, there is no requirement to pay back Medicaid for benefits received during lifetime after the beneficiary dies.

While Mother in her will could have provided for a Maryland Discretionary Act trust for daughter, she failed to do so. Nevertheless, the Maryland Discretionary Trust Act provides that “any person having a right to transfer property to another person may create a trust as a transferor under [the Maryland Discretionary Trust Act].” Under this law, the term “person” includes any legal entity, and a probate estate is a legal entity.

William M. Gatesman presently is working with clients to come up with creative solutions to allow estate beneficiaries to retain their essential public benefits where the decedent’s will did not provide for asset protection in light of those public benefits. Establishing a Maryland Discretionary Trust Act trust is one of the tools in Mr. Gatesman’s tool kit to achieve the objective of protecting a beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits.

How to Prevent The Never Ending Estate

Some workers who have received judgments in their favor from their former employers for work related disease or injury, such as asbestos related injuries or coal mining related diseases, find that the judgments are paid out over time, sometimes in the form of small amounts paid now and then over a period of many years. Some of these individuals have died and their probate estates have been wrapped up and closed. Then, out of the blue, another check arrives with a payment on the injury or disease settlement.

Once such check arrives, notice must be given to the Register of Wills in the county in which the estate had been opened, a supplemental inventory and account filed, and distribution made (with the payment of an additional probate fee in some circumstances). If a lawyer assists with this process, there will be legal fees as well. This is a cumbersome and costly endeavor, sometimes for a very small amount of money.

This continuous process of reopening the estate each time a settlement check arrives can be avoided with the proper assignment of future settlement payments to the beneficiaries of the estate when the final estate administration account is filed and the estate closed. Such assignment can grant the Personal Representative of the estate continuing authority to transact checks to make the distributions to the beneficiaries.

The Gatesman Law Office assists clients with the process of simplifying life for estate beneficiaries by arranging for the distribution of such settlement awards that might be received after an estate is closed without the necessity of continually filing supplemental inventories and accounts year after year.

Paying Legal Fees from a Probate Estate

In general, a Personal Representative of a decedent’s estate may not pay legal fees out of the probate estate without first getting approval from the Orphan’s Court overseeing the estate administration.  A Personal Representative has to be careful about this rule.  For example, if the Personal Representative hires a lawyer to prepare a deed, oftentimes, the deed preparer will simply send a bill for services without notifying the Personal Representative of his or her duty to get court authorization to pay that bill.  It would be improper for the Personal Representative to simply pay that bill without obtaining court authorization to do so.

Similarly, a Personal Representative should get court authorization to pay any legal fees incurred before death.  There are two exceptions to obtaining such prior authorization.  Some might argue that such authorization would not be required if the lawyer whose fees are being paid files a claim in the estate for such fees, and the Personal Representative pays the claim, which payment is reflected on an estate administration account (the argument being that such payment is the payment of a claim and not payment of legal fees, per se); however, the conservative way to do so would still be to obtain court authorization, or to pay such amount using the method discussed in the paragraph below.

Another method for paying legal fees incurred by the decedent before death is for the Personal Representative to provide all interested persons and all unpaid creditors with a Notice of the Personal Representative’s intention to pay such legal fees.  That notice will provide the interested persons and unpaid creditors with a time period in which such persons could object to such payment, and if such objection is properly and timely made, the Orphans Court will hold a hearing to determine how much of such fee is to be paid using estate funds.   If no objections are made within the allowable time, however, then the Personal Representative may pay such legal fees incurred before death with no further court action.  There is a particular rule of court that allows legal fees to be paid in this manner.

William M. Gatesman is skilled in the various methods of paying legal fees from a probate estate and assists clients with the proper administration of estates, including the payment of legal fees using estate assets.   As stated elsewhere on this website, these article are of general interest and readers should not consider these articles to constitute legal advice.   William M. Gatesman stands ready to give legal advice to particular clients in jurisdictions where he is licensed to practice law.  Please contact Mr. Gatesman if you would like to obtain legal advice regarding the matters addressed on this website.

Solving a Thorny Property Ownership Problem

Mom is in a nursing home. As part of an asset preservation plan, Mom’s house will be transferred to her children and she will apply for Medicaid benefits.

In digging into the matter, however, the family discovered that “Mom’s house” actually is titled in Dad’s sole name (Dad died in 1989) and Dad’s former wife, as co-owners. Mom and Dad have resided in that house since they were married and everyone assumed that when Dad died, Mom owned the house (as is typical when a husband and wife live in a property that they own together). However, Mom never was on the deed.

To make matters worse, Dad died without a will and nobody bothered to open a probate estate in 1989 to deal with the real property. Even more complicated is the question as to whether Dad’s former wife survived him, which would mean that the house belonged to someone else, and not to Mom.

Click here to read the rest of the story…

October Brings New Laws Affecting Probate in Maryland

There are several new laws affecting probate in Maryland that became effective October 1, 2012. This article will address those statutory changes.

Click here to read the rest of the story…

May a Personal Representative Represent an Estate in Court Without a Lawyer?

Several lawyers have been pondering whether it is illegal for a Personal Representative to bring a legal action without a lawyer because doing so would be considered the unauthorized practice of law.

This office was involved in a case a few years ago in which the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that a Personal Representative (who was not also an estate beneficiary) may not pursue a legal action in Circuit Court without a lawyer. The Appellate Court ruled that doing so constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. The Court ruled also that an estate is not a person who can pursue a legal action “pro se”.

When an individual goes to court without a lawyer, such person is said to be acting “pro se”. Only individuals are allowed to pursue legal actions in court on a pro se basis. Parties who are not individuals, such as corporations, may not do this, but rather, must be represented by a lawyer.

According to the Court of Special Appeals in this unpublished opinion, an estate likewise must have a lawyer to pursue a legal action in Circuit Court.

You may click here to read the case.

Probate to Remove a Cloud on Title

William M. Gatesman and the Michael G. Day Law Office recently assisted a client in the following situation. During her husband’s lifetime, the client and her husband transferred their real estate to various trusts using deeds that identified the trust as the recipient or grantee of the property, specifically using the name of the trust without including the name of the trustee.

Deed to Trust Must Name Trustee
Under current Maryland law, such a deed would be effective to convey the property to the trust. However, at the time the deed was signed, Maryland law required that the trustee of the trust (i.e. an actual person) be listed as the grantee in order for the deed to be effective. Listing the trust itself as grantee without also listing the trustee by name was ineffectual. Consequently the client’s deeds were not effective and there was a “cloud on title”, meaning that the property could not be sold until the problem was resolved.

In this case, because the original deeds to the trusts were not effective, we needed husband and wife to sign confirmatory deeds that included the name of the trustee as grantee. However, because husband had died, he could no longer sign a confirmatory deed. And even though his wife held his power of attorney, a power of attorney is no longer effective when the principal dies.

Ancillary Probate
To complicate matters further, while the real property is located in Maryland, the couple had since moved to another state. Since all of their other property had effectively been conveyed to the trusts, no probate proceeding was necessary in such other state even though their wills were on file with the court in that state.

Typically, in cases were an individual is domiciled in another state and dies owning real property in Maryland, one first opens an estate in the state of residence and then undertakes a streamlined “ancillary administration” in the Maryland probate court.

No Clear Procedure
While our office resolved this matter some time ago, it is evident from inquiries by other probate lawyers in an email discussion forum that some lawyers wonder whether a Maryland probate can be opened to address such an issue if there is no probate in the state of domicile.

In fact, Maryland’s rules of procedure and the statutes addressing the jurisdiction of Maryland’s probate court do allow a family member to open a probate estate in Maryland in such circumstance. On that basis, we were able to have a Personal Representative appointed in Maryland for husband’s estate for the sole purpose of executing the confirmatory deed which wife also signed. In this way, we were able to remove the cloud on title that affected the marketability of the properties.

This is one example of the type of complex situation we are called upon to resolve on behalf of our clients on a day to day basis.

Can a guardian be paid for services after the ward has died?

Battley v. Banks (Md. App. December 20, 2007)

The Gatesman Law Office assists clients in the appointment of a guardian for persons who become incapacitated and cannot make personal or financial decisions for themselves. Guardians are entitled to be compensated for their services, but they must petition the guardianship court for approval of such compensation.

When the disabled person, called the “ward” of the court, dies, the guardian must prepare a final account of the ward’s assets. That account should include the guardian’s final request for compensation.

Whether the guardian may pay such compensation to himself out of the guardianship assets before the ward’s assets are turned over the personal representative of the ward’s probate estate depended on the county in which the ward resided. The courts in different counties applied different rules.

Now, however, the rule is clear. Click here to read the rest of the story…