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Probate Poetry: Clarifying Legal Complexities

My first clue that the study of law was not going to match my imagination began with the LSAT. Law school’s official standardized test presented questions on logic, analysis and logic, math and logic, and observational logic. History, context and the evolutionary beauty of language was completely absent.

Law professors may find poetry in a syllogism; I arrived late for that party.

Luckily, the practice of law blends all of life’s mysteries – all of our families’ histories and blunt realties.

Speaking of blunt realties, probate has endured a difficult reputation. Grieving families looking for peace discover that the probate process strives for completeness at the expense of civility and harmony.

Probate laws place an emphasis on obtaining jurisdiction over the decedent’s closest living relatives, even if they have been specifically excluded from the will. Probate estates remain open for seven months to allow creditors time to file claims against the estate.

Probate is the cousin who shows up to your wedding without a card or a gift, then grabs the centerpiece away from your grandmother.

It is time to simplify our views and soften some of that negativity. Think of probate as a permission slip: Before you can go forward and take care of your loved one’s estate, a court needs some papers and some signed forms. Estate lawyers orchestrate the signings, prepare and file the documents, and provide support so that a difficult time becomes less difficult.

In the last 40 years, banks and brokerage houses have made it easier for a deceased person’s money to flow to another person without a court’s approval. There are beneficiary forms, transfer on death accounts, payable on death accounts, as well as the tried-and-true joint account with rights of survivorship.

Sometimes, an account slips through the cracks. The decedent’s name sits alone with no beneficiaries or joint account holder. This account will become a probate asset if the decedent had a will.

For most of us, the majority of our assets will never become probate assets.

Before the days of e-filing, probate packets would usually be presented in person to a probate clerk in Surrogate’s Court. Each court had its own flavor and charm. New York County Surrogate’s Court had ancient wooden telephone booths located in the hallway. I would duck into one to make a quick phone call to my boss and inhale about 65 years’ worth of stale cigarette smoke.  

During one sojourn to a Surrogate’s Court that shall remain nameless, me and my probate packet were directed to a clerk’s cubicle. In this particular space was a giant birdcage positioned near the clerk’s desk. My memory insists that a parrot resided in the birdcage.

Alas, there is no documentary evidence of the parrot’s existence. The probate review was completed to both parties’ satisfaction and I left the office. If there was a parrot in that cage, it certainly was well behaved.

Alan D. Feller, Esq., is managing partner of The Feller Group, located at 625 Route 6, Mahopac. He can be reached at


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