Practice Areas

Estate Planning

What Our Service Includes

Our standard estate plans include trusts, wills, health care directives, durable powers of attorney over finances, special needs trusts, and guardianship documents including any extra documentation needed for those with international families – power of attorney over child care, temporary guardianship nominations.  As part of our service for trusts we transfer any real property into the trust for you and we prepare detailed follow up instructions to allow you to transfer any remaining desired items to the trust.

 

Our complex plans include additional supporting documents such as post-marital agreements, step-parent or adult adoptions, separate property trusts, or tenancy-in-common agreements, which we will prepare if helpful.

 

Our firm does not provide services to reduce the gross estate for inheritance estate purposes as so few of our clients need these services and it unnecessarily complicates the process. If you have an estate worth more than $10 million dollars and you are not reducing the taxable estate through a charitable gift, we are happy to refer you to another attorney who specializes in that area of planning.

What To Expect

Typically, an estate plan is completed in about two to three weeks and requires two appointments.  The process is:

  1. Appointment Scheduling.  The client makes an appointment and we send the client an intake form.  The intake form does not have to be completed before the meeting. Its primary purpose is to provide the key questions to clients so they have time to reflect on those elements before the meeting.  Clients do not need to worry about providing exact account numbers, deeds or other documentation at the meeting.  You do not need to bring any private data like social security numbers, bank account numbers, or deeds.  
  2. Initial Meeting.  At the first meeting, the client and attorney review the intake form with the client filling in any missing information and the attorney providing counsel on the relevant decisions.  
  3. Draft and Review. The attorney drafts the estate plan and sends the plan to the client for review.  Our office will make any changes requested before the next meeting.
  4. Signing Meeting. At the signing meeting, we review the documents again and sign the final plan.  The attorney will discuss a few follow-up items with the client such as beneficiary designations and how to manage the trust moving forward.  The client should expect to spend another hour on the plan following the final meeting.

Many clients do not need or desire this level of complexity which is why we offer Same-Day Estate Plans. This is most often used by individuals or couples who know who they want to receive their assets and know who they want to administer the distribution of assets.  For these clients, we will complete all the steps above in one meeting. If the client has a correction later or changes their mind, they are welcome to come back and make updates for no additional fee.

Why Summerall Law

Why should I use Summerall Law instead of another firm?

  • Other attorneys are going to offer similar services.  The primary complaints that we hear about other practices are that the attorney seemed uninterested in completing the plan, or the process was too complicated, expensive, or burdensome for what the client needed.
  • We have listened to those complaints and we run our practice differently.
  • What our clients appreciate about us:

Clear and user-friendly process.

  • The primary distinction between our practice and other practices is that we do a lot of estate planning.
  • Because we have spent so much time on that process our intake process is well-developed requiring little documentation from clients, our turnaround time is fast, our documents are easy to understand, we have well-developed instructions on how to maintain a trust, we have online search services to obtain your deed, and we work well with insurance providers.  
  • We have time in our schedule set aside for meetings and signings, we prioritize time with our clients.  
  • For attorneys who do less of this work, their process is not as well developed and that can result in duplicative meetings, extra drafts, missed communications, and other time-consuming issues.

Attorney attention.

  • Many attorneys try to save time in the estate planning process by having a paralegal meet with the clients.  We have found the best way to avoid the back and forth of edits and revisions is for the client to meet directly with the attorney and then for the attorney to promptly prepare and provide a draft estate plan to the client that is very close to the final product.  
  • This process allows our clients to feel confident that they understand what they are signing and that it is representative of their wishes.  
  • We like meeting with clients and hearing about what is going on in their lives and helping them make informed decisions.  It is why we do what we do.

Sensible and predictable fixed-fee billing.

    • Many attorneys use traditional billing structures based on charging hourly rates for estate planning services and for follow-up services. Hourly rates have significant downsides.
      • We have seen these rates and final bills be what we consider to be absurd beyond all reason.  For example, $7,000 for an amendment, or $1,000 per year in maintenance fees.
    • Not only can hourly rates lead to absurd costs, we believe hourly rates can often lead to less effective estate plans.  
      • Clients may decline useful legal tools because they want to avoid costs or because they feel that the attorney may be recommending them to make more money or because they did not fully understand the impact of a document because they did not want to pay for additional attorney time to respond to questions.  
  • A flat-fee structure allows for time and flexibility. If our clients have a question or concern, we want them to feel comfortable asking those questions without worrying about fees.  Further, we want them to feel confident that if we are recommending a document or process, we are recommending it because it is what is best for their estate, not because we are going to make additional money off of it.
    • Using a system of simple intake forms and process combined with a fixed-fee structure that allows for unlimited follow up questions creates the most peaceful and harmonious planning process.

Fees

Estate Plans.  For those with planning needs requiring more than one meeting the fee is $2,200 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple.

Same-Day Estate Plans.  For simple plans that can be completed in one meeting the fee is $1,500 for an individual and $2,500 for a couple.  This works well for families who know most of the answers to the questions on the intake form and want to complete their plans as quickly as possible.  

Complex Plans.  For those needing additional documents or services such as post-marital agreements, step-parent or adult adoptions, separate property trusts, or tenancy-in-common agreements, the fee is $3,500 for an individual and $5,000 for a couple.

Insurance-Covered Plans. For those using insurance, the fees are generally structured as a “covered-in-full” plan or a “will only” plan.  For all insurance plans, the property recording and notary fees are not covered by insurance.  The property recording fee is $150 dollars per piece of real property and notary fees are $15 per signature.  In most cases, those fees total $225 for an individual and $300 for a couple.  If you have a “will only” plan, the fee to add a trust will be $950 for a couple and $750 for an individual.  

Amendments and Restatements. The fee for an amendment or restatement completed in one meeting is $500 for our prior clients, if the amendment or restatement that takes longer than one meeting, the additional time is billed at $400 hour.  For clients who previously used other attorneys, the fee is $1,250 for an individual and $1,500 for a couple.  This fee difference reflects the additional time it takes for us to become familiar with a new client’s goals and their preexisting documents.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do I need an estate plan?

 

  • In California the primary benefit of estate planning is avoiding the time and expense of transferring assets through a probate proceeding.  Probate is the legal process required to transfer the assets of a person who passed away and had no estate plan or had only a will.
  • Due to court crowding and California legal requirements, the average time it will take your beneficiaries to receive assets when the probate process must be used is one to two years.  In many cases it takes three to five years.
  • Plus, the attorney who handles the probate proceeding is paid on a percentage fee basis in probate court.  This means that for a family with a million dollars in gross assets (no deduction for mortgage balances or other loans) that attorney’s fees will be a minimum of $25,000.  
  • In contrast, individuals who have an estate plan with a trust get to avoid probate and use the trust administration process which typically takes only six months to a year and typically costs just $5,000.  
  • There are many other reasons why it is very important to complete estate plans, such as making sure children don’t inherit assets when they are too young to make good life choices, avoiding Medi-Cal liens on real property, expressing your preferences in who should be involved in the management and distribution of assets, selecting a guardian for minor children, and avoiding gifting to individuals with physical or mental disabilities in a way that causes them harm (either by making it impossible or complicated for them to maintain eligibility for public benefits or by tasking them with the management of finances in an unrealistic manner).  
  • While inheritance tax issues are typically not an issue for individuals with less than $10 million dollars in assets, there are property tax basis issues and capital gains tax issues that may need to be addressed.  

 

I have a simple estate, why should I use an attorney instead of Nolo or Rocket Lawyer?  

 

  • Most of our clients are highly competent individuals who could read the instructions in Nolo or Rocket Lawyer and put together a basic estate plan, if they wanted to spend the time and energy to do so.  
  • But the issue isn’t simply whether the legal issues are straightforward and understandable—estate planning can still be a complicated process. Sarah often tells her clients the hardest part about completing an estate plan is getting through the first appointment.  There is always an emotional element to estate planning which includes overcoming psychological barriers to decision making. Talking about death, making tough choices about who would care for children, and having difficult conversations with spouses are easy conversations to avoid.  When we are not eager to get started the delay can become unending.
  • One of the most important benefits a client receives when they use an attorney is someone to help reduce the burden of those psychological barriers. Not knowing for sure if something is done correctly, or if you should have considered other options, only prolongs and intensifies the psychological and emotional burden of estate planning. Having a professional clearly outline the options and the potentials pros and cons of a decision has saved our clients countless hours of meaningless arguments and emotional toil.  What can seem like an overwhelming and infinite number of difficult decisions can usually be narrowed down to a few choices between a couple of reasonable options in a one-hour meeting.
  • Many clients will come to our office after spending a year with an “easy estate planning” book and complete a plan in the same day with a comment that they are so relieved to have completed the process and cannot believe how it easy it was to get it done once they had some help.  

Probate & Trust Administration

What Our Service Includes

A probate administration is the legal proceeding necessary to transfer the property and assets of person who has died when that person died without an estate plan – either without a will, or with a will but without moving important property into a trust – and there is no other automatic means of transferring the property such as having property jointly titled or having a beneficiary designated on the account that holds the property.  

While there are some differences between the probate process when someone dies without a will as compared to when someone dies with a will, but without a trust, because the processes are so similar we treat them similarly and have described them together here.

There are 3 basic elements to our probate administration services:

1) Taking Advantage of Any Non-Probate Transfer Options

  • As part of our services, we first explore if there are any solutions available that will allow the property to be transferred outside the probate process.  For more detail, please see the Frequently Asked Question here: What options exist for transferring property outside of probate? Using these strategies reduce your fees and help beneficiaries get access to property more quickly. If there are not any meaningful alternatives, we will start the probate process.

2) Selecting an AdministratorWhat to Do When There is No Will

  • If the estate is that of a person who had a will, that will likely identified the person who will be the executor of the estate – the person that collects and distributes the property and winds up the affairs of the person who has passed (including paying debts and settling legal claims). If your probate services are for a person with a will, you get to skip this step, unless there are unique issues to discuss.
  • If there was no will then the first thing the family needs to decide is who will be the administrator – that is the same thing as an executor, it is just the term you use when there was no will.  The administrator also has a responsibility to keep the beneficiaries – the people potentially entitled to receive estate property – updated on the status of the process.  
  • For more detail on choosing an administrator, please see the Frequently Asked Questions section here: What do we need to think about in selecting an administrator for an estate?

3) Probate Administration in Court

  • This is the tough part. We help the executor or administrator understand their duties, complete the necessary steps, and navigate the judicial process.
  • We have described this process in more detail in the next section (What to Expect).

Trust administration is a more straightforward and less time-consuming process for transferring property that is held in a trust according to the requirements of the trust.

What To Expect

The Probate Process (and Some Comparisons to Trust Administration)

The probate process is difficult, but with the help of a caring advocate it can be slightly less painful.  Sarah often tells clients, in a half-joking manner, that the difference between probate and trust administration is that probate is like signing your family up for an IRS tax audit after your death while trust administration is more like asking them to file a tax return.

Legally, probate and trust administration are supposed to be exactly the same thing except that in probate the court oversees the process.  Practically, this means that in probate your family must comply exactly with the local rules regarding how forms are filled in, follow an intricate step-by-step process, account for every cent in the estate, and be prepared for the entire proceeding to be held up for several months if the court has any questions or a document is returned a day late.  In trust administration, the rule is more: if everyone is in agreement, then you can move forward. Since you are not waiting on the court’s availability and permission, it is much faster and easier to move the case along.

Generally, the probate process works like this:  

  1. Opening of Probate. A petition (court lingo for “request”) for probate is filed with a request to approve or appoint an administrator.  The petitioning (requesting) party sends notice to all the beneficiaries.
  2. Administrator Gives Notice. The administrator publishes notice in the local newspaper and notifies all the beneficiaries of their intent to administer the estate.
  3. Hearing to Appoint Administrator.  There is a hearing where the judge reviews the petition and if no one objects, prepares an order to appoint the administrator.
  4. Inventory and Appraisal. The administrator then prepares an inventory and appraisal of what is in the estate (a list of what the person owned and how much it is worth).  
  5. Payment of Debts and Settlement of Claims.  Administrator pays the debts of the estate including taxes and resolves any outstanding claims (like a credit card debt, utility bill, or outstanding loan).
  6. Final Accounting and Distribution.  The administrator then prepares and submits to the court an overview of the remaining property in the estate, its value, and an explanation of how they believe the property should be divided per the terms of the will (if there is one, or according to the law, if not), and asks the court to approve their actions.

Close of Probate. The court issues an order approving the distribution, the administrator sends out checks, and the probate case is closed.

Why Summerall Law

Why should I use Summerall Law instead of another firm?

  • Other attorneys are going to offer similar services.  The primary complaints that we hear about other practices are that the attorney seemed uninterested in completing the plan, or the process was too complicated, expensive, or burdensome for what the client needed.
  • We have listened to those complaints and we run our practice differently.
  • What our clients appreciate about us:

Clear and user-friendly process.

  • The primary distinction between our practice and other practices is that we do a lot of estate planning.
  • Because we have spent so much time on that process our intake process is well-developed requiring little documentation from clients, our turnaround time is fast, our documents are easy to understand, we have well-developed instructions on how to maintain a trust, we have online search services to obtain your deed, and we work well with insurance providers.  
  • We have time in our schedule set aside for meetings and signings, we prioritize time with our clients.  
  • For attorneys who do less of this work, their process is not as well developed and that can result in duplicative meetings, extra drafts, missed communications, and other time-consuming issues.

Attorney attention.

  • Many attorneys try to save time in the estate planning process by having a paralegal meet with the clients.  We have found the best way to avoid the back and forth of edits and revisions is for the client to meet directly with the attorney and then for the attorney to promptly prepare and provide a draft estate plan to the client that is very close to the final product.  
  • This process allows our clients to feel confident that they understand what they are signing and that it is representative of their wishes.  
  • We like meeting with clients and hearing about what is going on in their lives and helping them make informed decisions.  It is why we do what we do.

Sensible and predictable fixed-fee billing.

  • Many attorneys use traditional billing structures based on charging hourly rates for estate planning services and for follow-up services. Hourly rates have significant downsides.
    • We have seen these rates and final bills be what we consider to be absurd beyond all reason.  For example, $7,000 for an amendment, or $1,000 per year in maintenance fees.
    • Not only can hourly rates lead to absurd costs, we believe hourly rates can often lead to less effective estate plans.  
      • Clients may decline useful legal tools because they want to avoid costs or because they feel that the attorney may be recommending them to make more money or because they did not fully understand the impact of a document because they did not want to pay for additional attorney time to respond to questions.  
  • A flat-fee structure allows for time and flexibility. If our clients have a question or concern, we want them to feel comfortable asking those questions without worrying about fees.  Further, we want them to feel confident that if we are recommending a document or process, we are recommending it because it is what is best for their estate, not because we are going to make additional money off of it.
    • Using a system of simple intake forms and process combined with a fixed-fee structure that allows for unlimited follow up questions creates the most peaceful and harmonious planning process.

Fees

Overview: The fees an attorney is paid to handle a probate administration are set by statute.  There are also costs to a probate which include filing fees, probate referee fees, and publication fees, that total about twenty-five hundred dollars ($2,500) per case.  These are paid directly to the court.

The Math: California law says that the way to calculate the compensation the attorney receives for their time on a probate administration is based on the following fee schedule:

  (1) Four percent on the first one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000).

  (2) Three percent on the next one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000).

  (3) Two percent on the next eight hundred thousand dollars ($800,000).

  (4) One percent on the next nine million dollars ($9,000,000).

  (5) One-half of 1 percent on the next fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000).

The Bottom Line: In simplified terms this means, for a million-dollar estate, the probate fees and costs will be approximately $25,500.  For a five hundred-thousand-dollar estate, the fees and costs will be approximately $15,500. These fees are paid by the estate and the personal representative does not need to have funds to start a case.  

We are currently running a promotion where we will reduce our fees by five hundred dollars ($500) for any probate administration where the decedent died owning real property that is included in the probate estate.  

Frequently Asked Questions

When can people inheriting money or property expect to receive it?

  • We highly recommend that any beneficiary of a probate estate not depend on the money they are planning to receive from the proceeding until they actually receive it.  There are a hundred different reasons why the money not be available: there might be unknown creditors, litigation against the estate, or intense and lengthy litigation between the beneficiaries.  Even if the money is all there and is coming to you, it may take years.
  • It is going to take longer than you think for the probate process to close.  Houses not selling, water leaks, claims by caregivers, complicated creditor claims, busy courts that cannot re-schedule routine hearings for three months, all these obstacles contribute to probate taking longer than anyone wants it to.  If you have in your mind that you don’t know how long it will take, you are right. No one knows how long it will take until you get your order for distribution.

What do we need to think about in selecting an administrator for an estate?

  • The administrator is usually the spouse, and if no spouse, then one of the children, if no children, then a sibling.  It does not have to be one of these people as long as everyone agrees on the best person.  
  • The most important aspect of picking an administrator is to pick someone who will not make family conflicts worse.  Being financially savvy or having a background in law is not that useful.  Having the ability to distribute personal items without hurting anyone’s feelings is priceless.  The attorney is going to tell the person what the law allows or requires the administrator to do with property, so as long as the administrator can follow directions, they are qualified for the job.  
  • Be realistic when choosing an administrator.
    • Paradoxically, the person who is presumed to have a right to be an administrator under the law of California is also the person most likely to be in the most severe state of grief.  If dealing with legal paperwork is going to make the grieving process more intense for that person, we recommend that the family consider other options, such as an aunt or uncle who is available, retired, and would like to help the family out by offering to take on the job.  
    • For the family of grieving spouses, please note that the surviving spouse, even if not obviously shaken, may need extra support, care and love for at least a year.  Maybe two years. You know how people tend to say that couples share a brain?  Well, when one-half of the brain is no longer there, it takes a long time for the other person to catch up.  A person who recently lost a spouse and is otherwise mentally capable, will often have a hard time doing simple tasks such as reading and responding to bills or letters.  They may also have a hard time expressing their need for new companionship and be extremely sensitive to loved ones and friends not returning calls or responding to letters.  Holiday cards are a big deal.
    • If a surviving spouse wants to serve as administrator, we recommend that there be some friends or family that are on call to help them read and respond to email, find where to sign forms, and otherwise provide companionship during this time.  

Should the administrator charge fees?

  • Being an administrator is hard and is likely to take more time and energy than expected.  It requires a lot of work.  we believe it is a kind thing for an administrator to serve without asking for compensation, but we don’t recommend it.  There are two reasons why an administrator should receive fees:
  1. It is a lot of work, and you probably are not used to working for free.  There are going to be a seemingly endless list of things that the attorney, a beneficiary, or creditor needs from you.  It will be a lot of work and it is easy to not want to do it even when you are getting paid. Doing it when you are not getting paid, might lead to a state of misery that is incapacitating.
  2. Getting tired can lead to litigation.  If one person is doing all this work, and they are doing it for free, they might have a shorter fuse with complicated demands from their brother or sister who think they sold the microwave for less than it was worth at the estate sale they spent their entire Saturday hosting.  This anger can build-up and lead to less than optimal communication which is often the source of litigation. Being paid for the time spent on estate tasks is fair and can help ease the feelings of one person carrying too much of the burden.
  • If someone is adamant that they want to serve without compensation, we recommend that they charge the estate for all of their expenses, the beneficiaries do something super nice for them at the end, and they communicate in the most loving and compassionate way during the process.

 

What options exist for transferring property outside of probate?

 

  • There are several ways to transfer property without probate.   Before we open a probate proceeding in court we review the alternative options with our clients and their families.   
  • Heggstad Petitions – When property was not assigned to an existing trust:
    • It is very common for families to create a trust, put their home in the trust, and then when they refinance, or buy another home, they forget to put it back in the trust.   
    • As long as there is evidence that the failure to put the property back in the trust was unintentional, the best practice is to file a Heggstad Petition, instead of working through probate proceedings.   
    • This petition asks the court to transfer the title to property back to the trust without a formal probate.   It can save clients $30,000 in probate fees.
    • These types of petition can also be used for financial accounts that were not titled in the name of the trust (as long as there is some evidence that they were intended to be in the trust).
    • Cost.  We do these often and tell clients to plan on about ten hours of attorney time plus the filing fee of ~$450.00.  
  • Re-Titling Petitions for Spouses – When a spouse was inadvertently left off the title of property:
    • This situation usually comes up when one spouse is on title to an asset and the other person was not listed, most commonly for financing purposes.   
    • When the spouse named on the title passes away, the other spouse needs to have their name added to the title in order to sell or take a loan out on the property.   
    • In this situation you do not have to open a probate to transfer title, instead the surviving spouse can petition the court to confirm the spouse’s community property share to the surviving spouse.   The order will tell the county recorder to re-title the asset in the surviving spouse’s name.
    • Cost.  Plan on about ten hours of attorney time plus the filing fee of ~$450.00.  
  • Summary Administration – When the assets are under $150,000:
    • If there is no real property in an estate and the value of the remaining assets is less than $150,000, there is a simplified form of probate called summary administration.   
    • Using the summary administration process you can take title to most assets using an affidavit.  You can get the forms you need and detailed step-by-step instructions on how to use this process here:

 http://www.saclaw.org/pages/affidavit-collection-property.aspx  

    • Cost.  Paying for attorney time generally not necessary when using this type of process.