LEGISLATORS in Annapolis are taking a good look at the difficulty and expense of probating wills in Maryland. Their objective is to make it easier for families to handle these matters without outside help where possible and to reduce costs when professional assistance is needed. A bill with these objectives, introduced by Sen. Stewart Bainum of Montgomery County, has been passed by the senate and will be considered by the house judiciary committee next week.
Half of all estates in Maryland are now probated without any professional assistance, and if the Bainum bill is passed, that number should increase substantially. The bill requires the attorney general to prepare and make available to the public basic instructional materials that explain the probate process in plain English. The court of appeals would have to adopt simplified statewide forms, and the register of wills in each county would be charged with the special duty of helping members of the public through the probate process.
It is expected that the bill would also reduce costs when estates are large or complicated enough to require professional help. Two kinds of fees are involved, one to the persons or institutions named in the will as "personal representative" and another to lawyers retained to help settle the estate. Often the personal representative is a member of the family, an heir himself, who accepts no fee. But sometimes a bank or an attorney is named in the will to perform this function. Present law allows the personal representative to collect a fee of 10 percent of the first $20,000 in the estate and 4 percent of the rest. These percentage fees really make no sense, since the work involved is not necessarily related to the size of the estate. Assets that are all in cash can easily be distributed, even if millions of dollars are involved. Small estates with a number of specific bequests, assets to be sold and heirs to be located can be very time-consuming. The bill would eliminate the percentage fees and allow payments that can be justified on the basis of the time and difficulty involved in each estate. This reform would also make it less likely that courts would allow percentage payments to attorneys hired by personal representatives. Such payments have never been required but have often been requested.
The Bainum bill is a sensible reform backed by senior citizens' groups, consumer organizations, Attorney General Stephen Sachs and the Maryland State Bar Association. It deserves the same kind of support in the house of delegates that it has already received in the senate.