As if there weren’t enough reasons for avoiding probate already, we should now prepare for access to the probate court to take even longer than it already does. Recently, the San Diego courts announced that they will be laying off about 250 workers throughout the court and closing several court rooms over the next two years. Additionally, the entire North County probate operation will be moving to the central location downtown.
The changes to the court will have a negative impact across the board for all types of cases. Particular to probate, clients can expect longer wait times and longer probates. Processing paperwork and getting court dates could already take over a month in many cases. However, as the North County court moves all of its cases to the Central Division, there are bound to be growing pains downtown. Furthermore, the increased case load will likely cause substantial delays.
Additionally, travel time to the Central Division for hearings and filing documents will be increased for clients and attorneys alike. With business offices closing early on Fridays, it may be more difficult to file documents on time, causing a greater need for continuances.
The Central Division will also be closing six criminal courtrooms and a civil courtroom. The Ramona Branch is closing entirely. All this adds up to a number of disturbing effects for San Diegans. As the San Diego County Bar Association put it in its comments: “’Equal justice under the law’ becomes an empty slogan when repeated Legislative budget cuts to the Judicial Branch result in courtroom closures, shortened operating hours, and a delay, if not a denial, of access to justice.” Access to the courts is a hallmark of our society and should be protected. These cuts will cause geographical and financial impediments, slower service, and possibly a total inability for certain citizens to have their cases heard. This worsened service comes at a price. By that I mean that it will cost more to file petitions and other paid documents beginning in September.
There is a silver lining, though. At least in the context of probate, the court process is optional. Taking steps now to bypass the probate process by creating a comprehensive estate plan will prevent your assets being tied up in the court process for well over a year in many cases. By creating and properly funding a trust, the transfer of assets after your death can occur entirely without court supervision. An attorney who specializes in estate planning will be able to advise you and your family of your options, help you ensure that all of your assets are within the trust, and help keep your trust up to date . The probate court also handles guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Proper estate planning can reduce or eliminate your interaction with the court in the event a guardianship or conservatorship would otherwise be required.
Although I am optimistic that California’s budget woes will end in the future, it is not worth the risk to go through probate. Especially for younger couples who have children or own a home, estate planning is generally on the back burner. However, accidents happen and the best-laid plans can go awry; it is never too early to create an estate plan.
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