Legislation that would simplify Maryland's probate system--the process by which property of a deceased is formally passed on to heirs--and help reduce fees paid to lawyers who are hired to settle estates was backed today by advocates for senior citizens, a legal reform lobby and the Maryland State Bar Association.
Supporters said the bill, which would require local officials to publish a probate manual in "plain English," would make it easier for individuals to settle estates on their own, without having to pay a lawyer's fee out of the assets of an estate.
The legislation also would change the probate system so that fees, approved by the courts for payment to lawyers or individuals who settle estates, are in line with the time and expertise required.
"It's ludicrous that banks, trust companies and lawyers get fees for work they don't perform," said Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's), the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which took testimony on the proposal today. Miller said that probate work, which amounts in some instances to merely listing the heirs, assets and debts of an estate, is often done by secretaries and paralegals but billed to clients at fees paid for legal work.
During the hearing, Howard Larcombe, 70, a semiretired lawyer from Silver Spring, came to the podium in a wheelchair and told the senators, "We must remember . . . we're dealing with older people . . . who in this day and age are on a very limited budget." Another supporter of the bill, Mary Bercik of Arnold, said she handled the probate of her late husband's $100,000 estate herself with help from employes at the local Register of Wills with no trouble at all.
Miller said he believed the bill, sponsored by Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), has an "excellent" chance of gaining committee approval. An identical bill was approved by the House last year with a single dissenting vote, but died in a Senate committee in the session's final hours.
Specifically, the legislation would repeal a section of existing law that limits fees for "personal representatives" who settle estates, often a spouse or other relative of the deceased, to a maximum of 10 percent of the first $20,000 of the estate's value and 4 percent of the remainder.
Attorneys are not subject to the percentage formula, but are to be paid a "reasonable" fee determined by the court, but Bainum said that courts often rely on the percentage formula in setting lawyers fees.
Critics of the percentage system, which has been set aside in 20 other states, argue that the fees often have little bearing on the amount of work or expertise involved.
The proposal would replace the percentage system with a requirement that both lawyers and personal representatives submit to the court a fee request that would describe the nature and extent of their services, the value of their assistance to the estate and its beneficiaries and any other information that would help the court determine "reasonable compensation."
Bainum said approval of the bill would result in as much as a $10 million annual savings to Marylanders. According to Bainum, 50 percent of probate cases in Maryland are currently handled by individuals without legal help.
Attorney Earl S. Wellschlager, representing the state bar association's estate and trust division, told the committee that the organized bar, which in past years has been criticized for its failure to support probate reform, has no problem with Bainum's bill. Wellschlager said in an interview later, however, that "the real facts are" that probate fees for lawyers in Maryland are not "out of line" and that he did not expect to see significant cost reductions if the new bill is approved.
The bill's sole opponent was William Weaver of the Maryland Bankers Association, who said that it would be difficult for banks and their trust departments to give a detailed account to the court of the time and expertise employed in settling an estate since sometimes more than a dozen people are involved in resolving a single estate.