“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”
“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.”
– Ambrose Bierce
It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. There are few places that the adage is more accurate than in the law and in government. Judges frequently talk about programs that are working in their jurisdiction and encourage other judges to try some version of the same programming. And they’ll usually freely share forms, documents, and plans with other judges to ease that replication.
Thus, it was no surprise to me that not one, not two, but three of my fellow probate judges in Ohio, Judge Jim Walther in Lorain County, Judge Elinore Stormer in Summit County, and Judge Tim Grendell in Geauga County, all encouraged their fellow probate judges to duplicate a public program that they were putting on in their counties along with their county recorders and county clerks of court.
What I didn’t know, was that the county recorders were having the same conversation. And so, before I was able to consider staging the program locally, Delaware County Recorder Melissa Jordan reached out to Delaware County Clerk of Courts Natalie Fravel and me, offering to organize the program in our county, and to serve as the point person for registration and planning.
When she got the three of us together to discuss the presentation, we thought that maybe 25 or 30 people would attend, and planned to host the event in the Commissioner’s Office. Within a few weeks, more than 50 people had registered. And then more than 75. And then more than 100. We moved the event to the Board of Elections conference room at the County Willis Building. This past Monday evening more than 250 people packed the room to capacity — far, far exceeding the turnout we thought we’d have.
As a result of that turnout, we’re planning to offer the program again in several other locations around the county and will advertise it once we have dates and locations set. But many of the central tenets of the presentation can be repeated here. Before launching into them, though, I should note that we cannot give legal advice, and that estate planning can be a complex and individualized endeavor. The Good Deeds presentation is a general overview of what our offices do, and an explanation of broad concepts that can ease the probate process when a loved one passes.
First, Recorder Jordan’s office located copies of deeds for every attendee who owned real estate. This put in front of them a document that they might not have reviewed in decades. And it allowed me to encourage them to look at the language of those deeds to see if they contained joint survivorship terms, a transfer on death designation, or perhaps a transfer to a trust.
Second, the program allowed us to encourage folks to move past the uncomfortable feeling that comes from thinking about our own mortality, and to be purposeful about estate planning, including drafting a will and meeting with an estate planning expert. The program also allowed me to talk about general estate concepts and about the probate process.
Third, Clerk Fravel talked about survivorship designations on car, boat, RV, watercraft and mobile home titles. She had her co-workers from the title office on hand so that they could answer any questions that attendees had about the status of their vehicle titles.
Next, Recorder Jordan talked about the deed recording process and online access to recorded documents. She reviewed her office’s programs for military veterans and informed those in attendance that her office provides a free program that will notify you if someone files a lien or other document in relation to your property (a program that you can sign up for on her website).
Finally, and I think most importantly, seven attorneys from the Delaware County Bar Association — Doug Warnock, Scott Miller, Nick McCoy, Catherine Schobert, Tony Cimperman, Jim Dietz and James Cameron — volunteered to meet with the attendees afterwards and provide advice to them about their real estate deeds. An eighth, Ed Flahive, was unavoidably unavailable, but volunteered for future dates. Their willingness to give of their time and expertise turned the night from a generalized information session, into a practical, hands-on opportunity to improve the estate planning status of those in attendance.
We were simply blown away by the attendance at the program and the response of those who came, andf we were thrilled to see so many people take an active role in learning about the process. We hope to stage the program several more times in the coming months, and to do so in several places around the county. In the mean time, the single most important thing you can do is simply take the time to plan to make sure that you have a current will, and to review your estate plans with your loved ones so that they can locate important documents.
The few moments you take to do that now will be a huge gift to your loved ones after you are gone.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.