How Probate Works. A Guide for Executors, Heirs, and Families.

E212 How Does Probate Court Know Who to Notify?


After we published When Does the Executor Tell the Beneficiaries, many listeners and clients have asked: how does the court know who to notify?

Great question; the answer depends on who the heirs are.

If survived by many heirs

If the person who passed is survived by many heirs, the court relies on a system of checks and balances. The court sort of assumes that one of the other heirs will step up and say something is something is out of whack.

If survived by many heirs

For example, let’s say that there are actually seven nieces and nephews, but only six people have signed off on the court papers. The assumption is that one of them would mention the missing seventh person. The court will likely rely on the fact that the family members will keep each other in check.

If survived by one close heir

If survived by one close heir

Perhaps the person who passed is survived by only one heir, such as a sole spouse or an only adult child. The court needs an “affidavit of heirship” or “family tree affidavit.” This is a document that someone else must sign, swearing under oath that this is how the family tree looks. The person who signs the family tree affidavit can’t be the sole surviving spouse or child, or the sole heir’s spouse or child. So, who’s left? Usually you can use another relative (who doesn’t inherit), a longtime friend, or clergy.

If survived by distant heirs

If survived by distant heirs

“Distant heirs” can mean a couple different things. Your situation falls into this category if the family tree heirs involve first cousins or similar. It’s easy enough to prove that the person who passed had five children. But, once there are a certain number of distant heirs, the court needs proof of relationships. The court may require a genealogy report to prove complicated relationships. It is easier for the court to understand the family tree when it’s laid out on paper. In addition to the professionally verified genealogy report, the court may require a court-appointed third-party (usually the public administrator) to review and confirm the family tree. It is another method of checks and balances to make sure one side of cousins isn’t doing something to the exclusion of others.

In conclusion, you can’t go to the court to simply tell them who you are and get the estate moving. There are steps in place to keep people from doing so.

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E209 Do Tenants in Common Need Probate_

E209 Do Tenants in Common Need Probate?


In a recent case, Liz’s dad had bought a co-op with his girlfriend. Liz’s dad broke up with his girlfriend but continued to co-own the apartment as “tenants-in-common.” Liz’s dad passed away, so what happens to the co-op now?

What Happens When a Tenant in Common Dies?

What happens when a tenant in common dies?

Unless there is a specific percentage for the tenants in common, the property divides equally.

If they had owned as “joint tenants” instead of “tenants-in-common,” then the girlfriend would become sole owner. But, the co-op shares certificate states “tenants in common.” So the girlfriend is a half owner, and Liz’s dad’s estate is now a half owner.

Is Probate Required for Tenants in Common?

Is Probate Required for Tenants in Common?

The short answer is yes. Liz and her siblings must probate their dad’s estate to inherit their half share of the co-op. Right now, Liz and her siblings must appoint an executor who has legal authority to conduct business for the estate. A court-appointed executor has the right to enter the premises, to gain information from the co-op, and eventually to sell the property.

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E207 Hire a Professional Executor for your Insolvent Estate

E207 Hire a Professional Executor for Your Insolvent Estate


Going through probate is a grueling 1-to-2-year process. Would you want to go through all that if you don’t even get anything out of it?

If you think the estate may be insolvent, consider hiring a professional executor.

What’s an Insolvent Estate?

What’s an insolvent estate?

An insolvent estate is when the decedent’s debts are greater than the assets. For example, the mortgage, credit card debt, and medical bills are greater than the value of the house and bank accounts.

There are also situations where the estate is close to being insolvent and you don’t realize it. Examples of this are Medicare clawback and unseen taxes. If you received medical care paid for by the government, the government will want the money back when you die. This could leave your estate with a large bill. Additionally, the IRS will look over your taxes carefully to be sure they didn’t miss anything.

Who Must Probate the Estate?

Who must probate the estate?

Many family members and heirs ask: am I required to be executor? The answer is no! You can decline or not act at all. Although, some may feel like they are dishonoring their deceased loved one by leaving the estate as a mess.

If you think the decedent is close to having an insolvent estate, you have options.

One not-so-great option is to let the state take over. There’s a state office (sort of like the public defender, but called a public administrator) that can step in. But, the interest in the estate and the incentives might not be the same as a person who you hire to help.

Instead, Hire a Professional Executor for the Estate

Instead, hire a professional executor for the estate

A better option is hiring a professional executor. You won’t have to do the stressful work yourself and you don’t have to feel bad about abandoning your loved one’s estate to the public administrator.

Even if the estate is NOT insolvent, you now have a relationship with the hired executor. This helps to make sure you get your inheritance. If the estate IS insolvent, then you can relax knowing that a professional is there to wrap up the estate.

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E206 How to Set Up a Bitcoin Revocable Trust

E206 How to Set Up a Bitcoin Revocable Trust


Cryptocurrency (such as Bitcoin) is a new and unique asset. It’s sort of like cash, personal property, and intellectual property all in one. You need to plan for this type of asset in a different way than you would for your bank or brokerage account.

If you want a revocable trust for your bitcoin, you’ll need both a legal plan and a technical plan.

What to Include in Your Bitcoin Estate Plan?

If you want your trustee to hold bitcoin, you can’t rely on the same old boilerplate trust language. You’ll need to tweak a few things for your legal plan to work.

 

Opt-out of the prudent investor rule

Most trustees must follow the Prudent Investor rule, which (roughly) says the trustee may be liable for losses if he doesn’t invest the trust portfolio according to legacy investment principals. For example, 60% equities, 30% bonds, 10% cash. This doesn’t work for Bitcoin, since most people still consider it highly speculative. So a bitcoin revocable trust must include language opting-out of the prudent investor rule.

Access to devices and logins

What to include in your bitcoin estate plan?

Make sure to include language that gives your trustee access to your computers, devices, and logins. Without this, your trustee may technically be violating privacy laws.

Keep it flexible

It is important to keep your Bitcoin estate plan flexible since cryptocurrency continues to evolve.

Bitcoin in a Living Trust

With a traditional bank, you’d rename your account so that the trust owns it and not the individual. For example, you’d rename your personal checking account from “John Doe,” to “The John Doe Trust.”

But this won’t work if you hold your bitcoin on a centralized exchange. Currently, exchanges don’t open accounts for trustees. Nor do they offer beneficiary designations. So, to make a bitcoin trust, you’ll need to hold via a digital, hardware, or paper wallet where you control your keys.

Bitcoin in living trust

Think of your wallet as personal property, like artwork and other collectables that don’t have a deed or other record of ownership. One way to prove transfer of ownership for personal property is to sign a gift or assignment deed from yourself to your trust.

What Happens to the Bitcoin Trust Upon Your Death?

Now onto your technical plan: how to give access to your trustee when you die.

One solution is to “shard” your seed phrase and break it into chunks. For example, give half of the words to your lawyer, then give the other half of the words to another trusted person. Only upon your death will these two people be able to connect with each other to complete the seed.

A component of those plans could be a “dead man switch.” A dead man switch is where you routinely do something (ex. press a button) to indicate you are still alive. If you fail to press the button or miss two button presses, then it is presumed that you are dead. An email containing seed phrase then goes to your trusted people. (This is not a good plan, since it stores your seed on a ‘hot” device, the email server)

What happens to the bitcoin trust upon your death?

You could also give your seed to your trusted people in sealed envelopes. If this is worrisome, you could tell them to send you pictures to show that the envelope is still sealed (not ideal, just brainstorming here!)

We have worked on several Bitcoin revocable trusts, and these are the types of situations we encounter. It is exciting for us to learn about cryptocurrency and work with our clients to protect these valuable assets.

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E205 A DIY Probate Story_ 4 Years Wasted

E205 A DIY Probate Story: 4 Years Wasted


This is “Sam’s” cautionary tale of trying to DIY his dad’s estate over four years, with zero progress. I like to call this a Sisyphus story. Sisyphus was a figure from Greek mythology whose punishment for eternity was to push a heavy stone up a hill, but right when he would get to the top, the stone would come sliding back down to the bottom for him to start over again for all eternity. That is what Sam has felt like for the past four years.

Sam’s story

Sam’s story

Sam’s dad died years ago in Europe, and Sam had court hearings in European probate courts where they were declared Sam and his siblings the heirs. But in Europe the probate process is much different than New York and the U.S., as there are no actual executors; the court just declares who are the heirs.

A couple of years later, the heirs discovered a U.S. bank account that they wanted to collect. Sam spent the next four years following bank instructions into a black hole. The bank would tell him to do one thing which led to months of playing liaison with the European courts and the U.S., only to be told that it was the wrong information. Each time this happened, Sam had to start all over again.

Finally, Sam called us, and we realized that we needed to start from scratch. Even after hiring us, Sam kept talking to the bank, which created more problems, mixed signals, and cross information.

Common Probate Mistakes

Common Probate Mistakes

The first common probate mistake is to rely on the bank’s “advice.” The bank is not an advisor. If anything, their incentives are to keep the money in the accounts.

The second common probate mistake is to underestimate the complexity of the situation. Many clients believe that they have a “simple” probate matter when they call our office for help. However, often after we ask them some preliminary questions, we find that it is actually a complex estate matter. Any time the estate deals with overseas factors, the situation is certainly more complex. This should have been a red flag for Sam.

Lastly, once an attorney is hired to handle the estate, it does not help for clients to continue to work on the estate. Clients may think that they can help reduce the amount of work or hourly cost if they do some of the probate work themselves. That is not how it works, and it could end up costing the client more to have the attorney fix the DIY mistakes.

Avoid Problems in Probate

Avoid Problems in Probate

The bankers are bureaucrats, not your advisors. If you are not getting headway immediately with a bank, get a professional to help you. An experienced probate attorney can navigate the bureaucratic banking problems.

Everyone thinks their case is “simple.” What someone thinks is simple is probably just the tip of the iceberg of complex problems or twists. How do you figure out if you truly have a simple case or a more complicated situation? Many excellent probate lawyers offer free consults, so use that consultation to find out. Lawyers offer free consultations for a reason! It helps the attorney and the client to see if they are a good fit for each other.

Lastly, when you hire someone, let them do their job!

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E203 Why You Need an Experienced Probate Lawyer

E203 Why You Need an Experienced Probate Lawyer


Linda spent six months working with a general lawyer (meaning someone who practiced personal injury, litigation, and a dash of probate on the side). There was not much progress in those six months, so Linda became frustrated and transferred the case to us. Sadly, we had to basically start from scratch, because the general lawyer did essentially nothing.

What causes probate delays? Bad lawyers

What causes probate delays?

In Linda’s situation, six months went by and it was as if nothing happened in her case. One of the reasons for the delayed probate was because the general lawyer did not know what preliminary Letters Testamentary were. An experienced probate lawyer would have noticed right away that Linda had a complicated probate and would have immediately filed for preliminary Letters Testamentary. If this had been filed immediately, Linda could’ve started “executor-ing” months ago.

Another reason probate can be delayed is drafting the Petition wrong. In Linda’s case, the general lawyer didn’t understand which family members must be notified, and therefore hadn’t even begun collecting their contact information.

Lastly, probate can be delayed because a general lawyer might not realize that the Will isn’t properly witnessed. (As a side note, this is a good reason to find an experienced attorney to draft your Will). Getting the correct witnessing on a decedent’s Will takes a lot of time, including tracking down the witnesses and having them sign affidavits. An experienced probate lawyer would notice the incorrect witnessing and get started on the correction process immediately.

As with any practice, if a lawyer does not have much experience in a certain area of law, he or she will probably miss important details and cause delays.

When a lawyer gives bad advice

When a lawyer gives bad advice

In Linda’s situation, her deceased relative owned an income-producing property, and the general lawyer told Linda not to collect rent anymore from the tenants! This led to non-payment and problems with the tenants, which will cost the estate more money to work out. Instead of listing the house on the market during the summer, this lawyer’s bad advice means that Linda now must winterize the house. With proper legal advice, the house could have been sold and done with before the cold. In summary, bad legal advice causes more stress and aggravation for the client.

How can you avoid all this? Shop around: Compare lawyers, call their office, and visit their websites. Make sure you’re working with an experienced probate lawyer from the beginning.

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E200 Why You Can Feel Safe Hiring an Executor

E200 Why You Can Feel Safe Hiring an Executor


Instead of appointing a family member to administer an estate, you can hire a professional executor. We often get asked if this is a safe and better route. In a recent case, Sean contacted us to discuss this option. In his particular situation, he is from a blended family. His mother died and she is survived by three adult kids and a stepfather who was separated from his mother for a long time before her death. In his case, he is facing some possible trust issues. For example, the family could tentatively agree to equal shares, but the stepfather could claim full spousal status and kids could try to disqualify the stepdad (there is certainly an argument that he is not a spouse).

If the stepfather acts as the executor, the children may not be completely trusting. Similarly, if the children are the executors, the stepfather may have trust issues. With this complex family dynamic, an independent professional executor makes tons of sense. However, some of the heirs in Sean’s case were a bit concerned about handing over the reins and control of the entire estate to a stranger. Being apprehensive is completely understandable, but here’s why it still makes the most sense.

What is an Estate Accounting?

What is an Estate Accounting?

A professional executor will file a full accounting to close the estate. An accounting is an official record of all books. Everyone gets to see line by line every single dollar and cent that came in and went out of the estate. We are talking full transparency and disclosure. Every heir will get to see everything that happened without any questions. It’s all there in black and white. Professional executors do this not only to put everyone’s mind at ease, but it is also for their protection. Professional executors can only be released from liability from what they disclosed, which is why we disclose everything.

To put it bluntly, no matter how hard they try and how meticulously organized they are, amateur executors such as family members, friends, and neighbors keep terrible estate records. For example, in order for the estate to draft and file an estate accounting, our office has to work with the executor to gather all documents and records. Most of the time, many things are missing and there is a bunch of back and forth to find the missing documents. It costs the estate money to gather these docs and find the items that were never obtained or missing.

Usually, non-professional executor accountings are mediocre at best. On the contrary, professional executors will provide the estate with a clean and solid accounting. It’s not that we are more organized, it’s that professional executors are keenly aware of the risks of liability. We know that if we mess up, the courts will come down on us. We also know the end game, so we know how to start gathering and keep track of finances immediately upon starting the case. We are working the whole time towards producing a line-by-line accounting of all of the funds.

What Does an Executor Bond Do?

What Does an Executor Bond Do?

An executor bond is an insurance against the executor for the benefit of the heirs. So, if the executor makes a mistake, loses something, or is an outright thief resulting in the heirs not receiving what they should have, then the bonding company will pay the claim. With a bond in place, the worse that will happen is that you, as an heir, get to file a claim against the bonding insurance company to get the money. It will then be the job of the insurance company to recover the funds from the executor, and not the heirs.

To get a bond you need exceptional credit, especially with large estates. Generally, they want 750+ credit scores. It is tough for some amateur executors to get a bond for this reason. As a professional executor, we have never had a problem getting a bond and have never had a claim against a bond. If not required, very often, we will get a bond anyway to put the heirs at ease. In some cases, the courts simply require them of the executor, regardless of experience.

When you work with a professional executor and request for them to be bonded, make sure you are ok with the payment of the premium. This is the amount that will be paid annually to the bonding company by the estate. The premium fluctuates depending on the size of the estate and the bond amount. We can certainly get a quote beforehand and you can decide if it’s worth the annual payment.

Are Co-Executors a Good Idea?

Are Co-Executors a Good Idea?

“We have too many cooks in the kitchen.”

In Sean’s case, one of the questions the family asked was if we can have one family member and one professional working as co-executors. They wanted to know if co-executors are a good idea. The short answer is no. It boils down to too many “cooks in the kitchen.” When you have too many people involved with what is really a one-person job, then it becomes more complicated.

You will need each executors’ original signatures on all documents and authorization for all decisions. So, all the benefits of hiring a pro as a centralized decision-maker with experience to move the estate along properly and quickly is being thrown out the window. There are situations where executors are required to do things in person, such as opening the estate bank account. Both executors would need to go the bank together, and this may be challenging to coordinate, especially if one executor lives out of town or out of the country.

It also complicates the financials. You will have two people keeping financial records differently, that you have to merge together at the end. Collecting and combining two executor’s documents will take substantially more time and the estate will bear the cost.

While we do not advocate this route, if it’s the only way the family will be on board with a professional, then we can explore it. For the right family, we are willing to do it. We recommend that you speak with the professional and research what goes into administrating an estate before deciding on the co-executorship route.

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E198 How to Change Your Probate Lawyer


You may be surprised to learn that we receive requests quite often from people who wish to change their probate lawyer. This was the exact situation one of our clients was facing recently. “Linda” started her probate case with another lawyer but realized along the way that he was not doing a good job. So, she reached out to us to take over the case. Here’s a look at how that works.

First, from our perspective, changing firms is a double-edge sword for a lawyer. As a rule of thumb, attorneys do not particularly like to take clients who have fired their previous attorney, as it could potentially be a red flag. On the other hand, if a client has been legitimately been deprived by a past attorney, they are grateful to have help and are a pleasure to work with, as is the case with Linda.

“Linda’s” story

Linda hired a “flat-fee” probate lawyer, which she thought was a great deal. However, after 9 months, Linda realized the lawyer had not done much. She also learned he didn’t really know what he was doing. For example, he hadn’t notified any heirs, collected any of the preliminary financial documents, or even gathered the basic information, which is typically what seasoned probate attorneys do right away. That led Linda to seek out another lawyer. Not only did she want a new lawyer to help her, but she also wanted to recoup as much of her “flat-fee” as possible. After all, not much had been done in 9 months.

How To Change Lawyers In The Middle Of A Case

How To Change Lawyers In The Middle Of A Case

If the previous lawyer hasn’t done any work on the case yet, then it is pretty easy. You can request they stop working and hire someone new. However, it gets more complicated if the attorney has spent any time on the case, which can include opening the case and corresponding with the court. If that’s the case, you will want to decide wisely – even if you can’t stand working with a particular attorney, if you are close to the finish line, it may be in the best interest of the case to see it through to the end. You will have to weigh it out.

How To Transfer Case From One Lawyer To Another

If the case has progressed to the point of filing documents with the court, the attorney who filed the documents is called the “Attorney of Record.” This means they are your official lawyer in the eyes of the court. If this is the case, you simply can’t change who represents you without the approval of the court. The court requires documentation to change attorneys at this point, essentially granting permission to change attorneys. This document must be signed by all parties, including yourself, the previous attorney, and the new attorney.

This puts you in a position of needing something from the previous attorney. Therefore, it’s not advisable to air your grievances or place a nasty phone call to their office (which is actually never a good idea). Even though you may be upset with them, you need that document to be signed.

One thing to keep in mind is that an attorney may elect to not sign the document until all invoices have been settled. You may have to pay the balances in order to move on. Although you may disagree with the invoice, in reality, if they have done the work, they should be paid. You have to weigh out if paying the outstanding balances, even though they didn’t do much work in your opinion, is worth it to change attorneys.

How To Transfer Case From One Lawyer To Another

Another reason to keep the peace is for the transition to be smooth. Your new attorney will need to get the files from the previous attorney. While some records can be obtained from the court, the previous attorney may have originals that is easier to get from them then to retrieve otherwise.

Are Lawyer Retainer Fees Refundable?

The short answer is technically yes, but in reality, they are usually not. In New York and in other states, attorneys are not allowed to charge non-refundable retainers. Although found in most attorney agreements, it is not usually permissible. Unless you change your mind the day after you send the check, most lawyers would have done enough work to have earned the retainer. For example, opening the file, reviewing the documents, gathering preliminary documents, calling the court, etc., adds up, which may use most if not all of the retainer. Lawyers are definitely entitled to fees for the work they do, even if you are not satisfied with their work.

Are Lawyer Retainer Fees Refundable?

If you are considering changing attorneys, you may find that the cost of keeping your current attorney outweighs starting over with a new attorney. Alternately, depending on the particular situation, it’s worth it to start over. As with any decision, weighing your options before making the switch is important.

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E196 What Happens If Someone Doesn’t Want Their Inheritance

Believe it or not, we have clients to do not wish to accept their inheritance. Although extremely rare, there is actually no legal obligation to accept, and it’s completely okay to decline. There are often situations where it is best.

In a recent case, our client “Evette” lost her long-time boyfriend. They were never legally married but were practically husband and wife. Everyone knew them as a couple, including their family and friends. In this case, Ed did not have a Will. As we have discussed previously, non-married spouses do not legally inherit from the deceased partner. Under the laws of New York, Ed’s biological adult daughter would receive 100% of his estate. The daughter, acknowledging that Evette was for all intents and purposes the spouse, has opted to include Evette in the estate distribution.

Disclaimer of Inheritance Rights

Disclaimer is a fancy word for not accepting and forfeiting your share of the inheritance. In Evette’s example, the daughter could simply say “I don’t want anything to do with it. I do not accept.”

Disclaimer of Inheritance Rights

The pro is that the daughter signs one form and she is done with the estate. No one will bother her again. If you are estranged, which isn’t the case here, that may be the best route. This option is the least hassle, but it removes all control.

The con is that if you forfeit, you no longer have a say in anything. The default inheritance laws would kick in and the share would go to the next in line. In this case, Ed still has brothers, and by law it would go to them, which is not what he wanted.

Can I Give My Inheritance to Someone Else?

Can I Give My Inheritance to Someone Else?

Sure, you can give your inheritance to someone else, but only once you receive it, which could be months or years after probate starts. The drawback is that there is much uncertainly. In this case, the daughter will be waiting for quite a while to receive the funds. In that time, she can simply change her mind about giving a share to Evette. Additionally, the daughter will need to stay involved in the probate process, whether she wants to or not.

Transferring an Inheritance by Executing an Assignment

In this case, an Assignment of Interest is the best option. Here, the daughter will sign a document agreeing to assign a percentage of her share to Evette.

Transferring an Inheritance by Executing an Assignment

Instead of waiting to see if the daughter will actually share the inheritance with the girlfriend, this this formality creates certainty and can help eliminate any issues that could arise between a family.

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E191 3 Ways to Start Probate With No Upfront Fees

E191 3 Ways to Start Probate With No Upfront Fees


If you’ve done your research, you know that a good probate lawyer is not cheap. So how can you start your probate case even if you can’t pay now?

How much are probate attorney fees?

Lawyer fees for the simplest probate case start at $3,000. But probate is naturally messy, since is involves family, money, death, and high emotions.

So probate fees are usually more, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars!

source: https-::www.ft.com:content:14ea8e2a-0e47-11e7-a88c-50ba212dce4d

When to probate fees have to be paid?

Generally, lawyers require an upfront payment, or retainer, before starting work on your case. The upfront payment is usually a few thousand dollars, depending on the estimated total fees.

Many folks, understandably, just don’t have that money readily available, and ask “can probate fees be paid from the estate,” at the end?

Yes, but only under certain circumstance. Why? Because estates can be unpredictable, with many twists and turns. While you may feel certain that there’ll be plenty of funds to cover the lawyer fees, we’ve often seen:

  • Unexpected mortgages or debts
  • Unknown huge taxes due
  • Assets aren’t worth what you expected
  • Assets had a named beneficiary, and therefore not part of the estate

What to do if you can’t afford probate fees?

If you don’t have the cash on-hand to pay a lawyer’s retainer, here are some of your options to start your probate case now.

Deferred lawyer fee

Work with a lawyer who will accept a deferred fee (paid at the end, from the estate). If you’re able to find a lawyer to work with no upfront payment, expect some conditions.

For example, our office usually only accept deferred fee cases if you’ve also asked me to serve as your professional executor for the estate.

Contingent lawyer fee

Contingent fees are the ultimate “no win, no pay” arrangement. If your lawyer in unable to get your inheritance for you, then you don’t owe any fees. He only gets paid if he succeeds in getting your inheritance.

As you might expect, the trade-off is the fee will be higher than if you paid upfront: usually 1/3 of your recovered inheritance. But if you don’t have the cash to start your case otherwise, you’ll be glad this option even exists.

Contingent fee probate is limited to certain types of cases, such as:

  • Will contests
  • Proving kinship
  • Unknown assets

Request your free consultation

Sign-up for your free consultation using the form above, and I’ll be happy to email you a free chapter from Anthony’s best-selling bookHow Probate Works.”

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