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June 6, 2016
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A Probate Nightmare

Michigan Probate and Final Expense INsurance

WITHOUT PROBATE, ESTATES WOULD BE SUBJECT TO LAWLESS LOOTING 

My name is Michael Lucy, a long time friend of Attorney Bo Schimers. I would like to share my probate story with Mr. Schimers readers.

It is a little known fact that Mr. Schimers was a lifesaver for my family while we grieved over my uncle Bob’s passing. As a trusted friend, I reached out to Bo for professional advice on managing my uncle’s estate in Florida.

Bo has over 30 years of knowledge and experience with Michigan Probate, although in my case Bo was not licensed in Florida. That did not deter us or prevent Bo from explaining the entire probate process and laying out a roadmap for our family to use during our legal battles.

Mr. Schimers professional is very cost effective and when you consider the alternatives and disasters that can happen during probate, I would recommend consulting with an attorney (Mr. Schimers) IMMEDIATELY.

Have you ever been involved in the probate? 

If so, this story will likely hit home pretty hard.

My Probate Nightmare

When my uncle passed in 2016, our family went through rather lengthy probate experience to settle his estate. He passed while living in Fort Myers, Florida. The distance between Fort Myers and our family (most of us in Michigan and North Carolina)` created a lot of anxious moments and a very painful experience.

My Wife Ginger, me and my uncle Bob at the 2015 North American Auto Show (Cobo Hall)

If so, chances are you will vividly remember that it can make you feel anxious and frustrated and it can be a LONG and time consuming process (months and even years to settle an estate). 

Please do not get me wrong, probate is VERY important for preserving a legacy and making sure assets are distributed as per the wishes of the deceased. Probate is NOT perfect, but if you did not have probate death would quickly become a lawless looting of estates

My uncle, Bob, retired from “Ma Bell” (Michigan Bell) in the late 1990’s after which him and my aunt moved to North Fort Myers Florida. They moved into a gucchi style trailer park (might sound odd but until you see some of the retirement parks in Florida, you would not understand how lavish these trailer parks are). Thankfully, they truly lived their golden years without worries and had lots of fun. 

My aunt passed away in 2009 (god rest her soul) and the estate was easy to manage, all the assets (house, funds, etc.) were jointly owned between my aunt and uncle. They had done a great job saving, preparing for retirement and end-of-life. 

After my aunt passed, my uncle within a year had to re-plan his end-of-life. Our family is distributed across the entire east part of the US (Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, etc.) My uncle amended his will and estate planning by making sure the beneficiaries were up-to-date and assigned my other uncle, retired in North Carolina, as the executor (administrator). 

I was very close with my uncle, my father passed in 2006 so that left my uncle (Bob) as the male in my family that I was most close with. He and I never discussed “end of life” (we were too busy talking about the Tigers, Red Wings and physics) although he and my other uncle (in North Carolina) meticulously planned his end of life. 

In 2014, my uncle was seeking companionship and got very close (very quickly) with a lady in his park. As a frequent visitor, everyone knew everyone in this trailer park community, I knew this lady very well. 

In 2015 my uncle was diagnosed with Multiple Myloma (a fast acting cancer) and his health deteriorated very quickly, he held on until spring of 2016 but cancer finally overcame him. 

NOW, the my probate story begins – After his passing in 2016, our family quickly began to witness very strange behavior by his companion (the lady in the trailer park community). Once again, our family was scattered all over the US and although my other uncle in North Carolina and I were planning trips to south Florida to manage the estate, we were so distanced from south Florida that it was hard to keep up with the day-to-day. 

PLEASE NOTE: My uncle Bob had changed his will a couple times between 2009-2015 after my aunt’s passing, however in that will my other uncle in North Carolina was always assigned as the executor of the estate, that never changed (this is a very important point). 

What happened next was like it came straight from a Hitchcock novel, it led to my uncle’s estate in probate for 2 years. His companion (lady in the trailer park) “hijacked” the probate process. She walked into into the Lee County courthouse and filed the probate petition, without telling the family. She filed the petition with herself named as the executor and as one of the beneficiaries. 

Within a week, we discovered probate had been hijacked. My uncle in North Carolina and I were planning, over the phone, the management of the estate. I was driving from Detroit to Fort Myers, the first of many trips, and I called the Lee County courthouse to ask about their probate procedure(s), they suggested I check the website for details. 

I vividly remember what happened next. My wife was driving and while I was making these phone calls and checking websites. We were driving in southern Kentucky and when I checked the website, I found my uncle’s name on the list of current probate cases (this was a complete shock). 

Probate cases are PUBLIC RECORD. In Lee County Florida, they will scan and make available on the website most of the documents (will, amendments, assets, etc.). So I was able to view the petition, original will and the amendments to the will online. You can also order copies of all the files and have them delivered via mail, which we did. 

In our case, the amended will that was documented on the website (and in the file we ordered via mail) was fraudulent and falsified, which created a LOT of legal obstacles for everyone involved. 

The story gets VERY LONG and COMPLICATED from here, but here is a summary. 

1. We found out that in Florida you have 90 days to challenge the probate petition and the will (NOTE: YOU DO NOT WANT TO WAIT 90 DAYS, YOU WANT TO BEGIN THE CHALLENGE WITHIN 30 IF POSSIBLE). In Florida creditors also have 90 days to file a claim against the estate. Our goal was to have the original petition (by the lady) rescinded so we could file a new petition. Challenging the petition is different than challenging the will or the estate, we were challenging the petition. 

2. Legal representation is a MUST HAVE in a case when you challenge a petition or 

challenging a fraudulent petition. The original petition has “squatters rights”, you have to prove they acted unjustly (against the law). This can get expensive for all parties. 

3. Once the court (judge) makes a ruling the process starts all over again. In our case the original petition was voluntarily withdrawn AFTER the judge (and district attorney) threatened the lady with criminal action. The original petition was withdrawn and our family (my uncle) filed a new petition. 

4. The estate was held in probate for nearly two years. Once again, challenging the petition 

is different than challenging a will or the estate. Once we filed the new petition, we had two long years of settling the estate, mostly because the lady and others were challenging the distribution of the estate. 

5. Right after my uncle passed, his property was “looted”. During one of our first trips to 

Florida, we discovered that a handgun, all his tools (from garage), TV and a few other valuables were missing. 

Our family was able to hold it together and make it through this experience, it made us feel frustrated and anxious, the estate was held up for two years. In our case, luckily my uncle in North Carolina was able to fund the estate (i.e. pay bills and legal fees) for two years with the understanding and hope that once the estate was settled he would be reimbursed, which he was. That said, all the additional expenses over those two years needlessly decreased the assets that were distributed to the beneficiaries. 

6 THINGS RECOMMENDATIONS & THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ESTATES & PROBATE

  • When creating or amending a will, if at all possible assign an executor (administrator). This person should be very trusted by family, friends and everyone involved.
  • In the case where no executor has been assigned in the will, the court will assign the executor. Please note, the executor may be someone other than the person who filed the petition.
  • IF YOU HAVE FAMILY MEMBERS OUT OF STATE – States have different deadlines for probate milestones (i.e. when beneficiaries must be notified, how long creditors have to make a claim, etc.) For most states, you can plan on 3 months (4 months in Michigan) for the court to capture and document the beneficiaries and all claims against the estate. If you have parents, grandparents or even children out of state, make sure you have end-of-life conversations (i.e. be able to locate the will, know where all applicable insurance policies are located, etc.)
  • After all required notifications are satisfied (beneficiaries, creditors, etc.), the case is then ready to go in front of the probate judge. This will take another 90 days and can include many hearings. In a perfect case without many challenges and a well written will, the probate will be settled in as few as 90 days however in complex cases probate may go on for years. Of course, paying all applicable taxes is required to settle the estate.
  • MICHIGAN PROBATE – Here is a nice article from Nolo (CLICK HERE) that explains the Michigan probate process. The article claims that the average probate case will take 7-12 months in Michigan. The process is the same, but deadlines and milestones are different (i.e. creditors have 4 months to file a claim, which explains the extra month of average time in Michigan).
  • IMPORTANT – When someone passes and there is an estate at stake, does not matter the size of the state, secure the property AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE. Human nature and instincts kick in, even some of the closest family members will begin to feel entitled and start to loot the property. If the deceased is remotely located, hire a property manager to secure the estate. You can call the local police and ask how them for recommendations.

NOTE: Had our family (and me) known then what we know now, we would made sure to have a conversation with my uncle about some kind of lower face value and low cost life insurance or Final Expense policy to cover some of the expenses during the LENGTHY probate process.

Not all families have the resources, or family members like my uncle, to sustain an estate for two years waiting for that estate to be settled and distributed. Heck, many families may not have the resources to sustain an estate for an average probate of 6 months. 

If you and/or your spouse have a sizable estate, it’s highly recommended that you speak with a trusted financial planner to help you find the best recipe and balance for managing the estate at end-of-life. The recipe and balance should consist of estate planning, assets, wills, bank accounts (liquid cash), trusts and insurance. 

Insurance will solve problems and pain during the probate process, insurance is non-taxable and will provide a source of funding to sustain your family and the estate during the long probate process. Insurance will also prevent depletion of assets and cash in the estate, making the administration of the estate easier (and less costly in terms of both time and money.

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