Trusts & Estates Law/extraordinary fees

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Question
My aunt died without a will and the public administrator stepped in, emptied her bank account (and spent it) and packed up her house and moved all the boxes to storage BEFORE they were even appointed.  

Then, an heirfinder found me and my brother. We are niece/nephew. The attorney handling the probate had to step in over a year since the PA got involved.  So they had to hire movers and re-move all the boxes (59 boxes)which had ALL been marked "bric brac" back to her house, open and inventory everything. Organize the estate sale and then the sale of the house. Finally all the money is in an account.

My question is twofold. Can we make the PA give back all the money they took? I mean they weren't even appointed by the Court and I find their cost & fee statement highly questionable.  Also, all that extra work the attorney did we know is an extraordinary service..but how do you access a dollar value to it?

THANK YOU

Answer
Thank you for letting me know that California law applies.  Unfortunately, the Public Administrator has fairly wide discretion in these situations ... they step in when there are no known heirs.  In fact Section 7601 of the California probate code specifically says:  "If no personal representative has been appointed, the public administrator of a county shall take prompt possession or control of property of a decedent in the county that is deemed by the
public administrator to be subject to loss, injury, waste, or misappropriation."

So they're specifically authorized to act before a personal representative has been appointed.

The code also says:  "If the public administrator takes possession or control of property of a decedent under this article, but another person is subsequently appointed personal representative or subsequently takes control or possession, the public administrator is entitled to reasonable costs incurred for the preservation of the estate, together with reasonable compensation for services. The costs and compensation are a proper expense of administration."

As for their cost and fees ... you can try petitioning the Court, but I don't know if it would do much good.

As for the dollar value of the attorney's work, California law requires the attorney to submit a declaration stating what s/he did that is "extraordinary".  The Judge reviews the declaration.  If the lawyer was the one opening & inventorying the boxes, selling the property at an estate sale, etc., at a lawyer's hourly rate, the Judge will probably reduce the fee.  But it frankly depends on the judge and the county - I've seen relatively reasonable fees reduced and I've seen ridiculously high fees approved.

Wish I could be more help.

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Janet Brewer

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BE CAREFUL about taking legal advice from non-lawyers.

I am a licensed attorney in California. I am available to answer questions about probating estates, preparing wills and trusts, administering estates and trusts, forming family limited partnerships and limited liability companies, and establishing a wide variety of estate and gift tax-sensitive trusts (charitable trusts, children's trusts, irrevocable life insurance trusts, etc.).

I can also answer questions regarding the preparation of estate tax returns (Form 706) in taxable estates. Please note that I do not prepare trust income tax returns and cannot provide you with any information about that type of return.

Please note: I am only able to practice law in the State of California. I cannot answer specific questions about other states' laws; I can only provide some "general" information that may or may not apply to your situation.

Experience

I have practiced California estate, gift-planning, and probate law exclusively since 1991. I am certified as a specialist in estate planning and probate law by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization (there are less than 125 such specialists practicing in Santa Clara County and fewer than 7,000 practicing in California - out of over 170,000 lawyers statewide).

I have served as an Instructor in the CFP (certificate in financial planning) program at University of California Santa Cruz, teaching the estate planning segment.

Organizations
Silicon Valley Bar Association
Wealth Counsel
Wealth Advisors' Forum
Executive Committee Member, Solo and Small Firm Section of the California State Bar (appointed to a 3 year term by the California State Bar Board of Governors)

Education/Credentials
I received my law degree (J.D.) from University of Denver Law School in 1975. I was admitted to the Colorado Bar in 1975 and to the California Bar in 1977 (NOTE: although I am a member of the Colorado Bar, I am on INACTIVE status there). I earned an M.B.A. in 1982, and I earned a Masters Degree in Taxation Law (LLM) at Golden Gate University Law School in 2010 (with honors).

More at:
http://www.calprobate.com

Awards and Honors
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, & 2012 - chosen as a "SuperLawyer" - one of the top 5% of Northern California lawyers practicing in the estate planning and probate area (www.superlawyers.com). Avvo Rating of 10.0/10.0

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