ANYONE WHO HAS ever wrangled with the costly complexities of handling an estate of someone who has died knows only too well that where there's a will, there's a lawyer -- and often a fat fee. Too many lawyers act as though they were guided by a law of their own that says don't rock a bountiful boat. To add to lay confusion, there's a bill coming before the D.C. Council on Tuesday that is being advertised as a "reform." But there's more between the lines of this bill than meets the eye of any ordinary non-lawyer.
For example, local bar association groups supporting the measure point to a provision that attorney's fees based on work performed, instead of the current 10 percent of the estate. That sounds great, since there's no reason for an automatic 10 percent cut -- but how much of the "work performed" needs to be performed at all? Critics note that the vast majority of wills are uncontested and could be processed within a week or two at minimal cost. That has been the emphasis of a valuable campaign by concerned attorneys and law professors to make things simpler and less expensive. A committee of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws has produced a uniform probate code that some 15 states have already used as a model for their own laws.
Drafters of these bills believe the solution to the high costs and long delays is to detach all estates without problems from the public probate process, so that family members and other beneficiaries can receive estates and pay bills (and estate taxes) as quickly as possible. In Idaho, the first state to enact such a measure, probate costs have been reduced by about a third since the code took effect in 1972.
This is the direction the District Council should be taking, rather than approving a narrower bill relying on requirements that lawyers tell people more about their fees before taking them. Instead of getting more cases out of the courts or city hall, the local bill actually would bring more in -- by having the courts review the administration of an estate in nearly all cases, not just in the current 60 percent. The bill would increase the number of small estate cases that could be processed by the city (there goes that payroll up a notch or two), even if they don't really require all that much review in the first place. Instead of trying to write a new code justifying the old, expensive practices, the council should table this bill and take a look at the model legislation that forward-thinking states have enacted.