The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the plight of Marianne Blend, a 78-year-old woman facing the loss of her home due to what the Times called “probate confusion.”
Bland's problems arise from the 2011 death of Fernando Neri, her longtime partner. Bland and Nerri lived together as husband and wife but never married. California does not recognize common-law marriages, however, and Bland does not have the same rights as a surviving spouse under probate law.
Nerri left a handwritten will leaving his Highland Park house to Bland, who was also named executor of the estate. For reasons not made clear in the Times article, the will was apparently never filed with the probate court, and the Los Angeles County Public Administrator took control of the estate. Public administrators are appointed in each California county to manage the estates of decedents and “at-risk individuals” who are deemed unable to make decisions for themselves. A public administrator may act if a person leaves no will or there is no person available to otherwise act as executor.
The Los Angeles Public Administrator put the Nerri home—where Bland continues to reside—up for sale at auction in April 2013 in order to pay the estate's debts. The public administrator told Bland there were delinquent property taxes on the property. Bland disputes that, telling the Times she went to the county tax assessor's office, which told her there were no unpaid taxes.
The Times reported at least two dozen potential buyers expressed interest in the Nerri house. The successful bidder has to appear within 60 days at a confirmation hearing at the probate court. At that time, Bland will have a chance to fight her possible eviction.
A Hand-Written Will May Not Be Sufficient
Marianne Bland may be the victim of bureaucratic incompetence, but her situation was not helped by her late partner's estate planning. Fernando Nerri reportedly left a holographic will—that is, a will written in a person's own hand without any witnesses. While such wills are valid in California and accepted by probate courts, they are not advisable, especially for estates that include real property.
It also appears, from the Times account, that Nerri's holographic will made no provision for an executor beyond Bland. She was hospitalized for a significant period of time after suffering a stroke in 2012 and was unaware of the legal proceedings regarding Nerri's estate until two men posted a “for sale” sign in her yard. The public administrator acted because no other executor could be found.
One of an estate executor's most important jobs is dealing with creditors. The executor must review and pay all legitimate claims made within a certain time after the estate is opened. If the estate includes real property, the executor must pay all expenses and maintenance costs until the house is either sold or transferred to the beneficiaries named in the will (or the heirs provided by law for an estate without a will).
Finally, Los Angeles officials claim Boland is merely a “renter” on the property that, presumably, was owned entirely by Nerri at the time of his death. Careful estate planning can avoid such situations. If Nerri intended for Boland to remain in their shared home—and remember, they were not spouses or domestic partners under California law—he could have signed a new deed designating her as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. That means Boland would automatically become full owner of the property upon Nerri's death without the need for probate.
Taking Estate Planning Seriously
Hopefully Marianne Boland's story may still have have a happy ending. But her situation is a cautionary tale for anyone who doesn't take estate planning seriously. The best way to ensure your property and loved ones are provided for after your death is to work with an experienced California estate planning attorney. If you live in the San Diego area and are thinking about preparing a will or other estate planning documents, please contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady at 1-877-435-7411.