Melissa is a mother of 2, lives in Utah, and writes for a multitude of sites. She is currently the EIC of HarcourtHealth.com and writes about health, wellness, and business topics.

The California Court of Appeal decided a case last year that underscores probate issues resulting from unclear wills and trusts. The appellate court overturned the trial courts but sent the case back due to additional claims made against the estate. This is a great lesson for anyone considering writing their own will.

The Case

Cheryl D. Stockird died, and her handwritten will divided her property, with 65 percent going to her life partner, John L. Aguirre, Sr., and 35 percent passing to an aunt by marriage, Patricia Ambrose. Ambrose passed away before Stockird, but the will didn’t specify what should be done if either heir died before Stockird.

After Stockird’s death, the will went into probate. Aguirre petitioned for an order to assign the entire Stockird estate to him as the sole surviving heir. Bruce Ramsden, Stockird’s half brother, filed another petition, stating the lapsed 35 percent should go to him under the laws of intestacy. Both parties found sympathetic sections of the state’s Probate Code to support their claims.

The probate court agreed decided in Ramsden’s favor and ordered the residuary gift of 35 percent to be given to Stockird’s half brother. However, the court of appeals reversed the decision reversed the judgment of the probate court.

The Appeal

The Court of Appeal found the trial judge improperly interpreted the Probate Code’s section 21111(b). This section states that if a residuary gift gets assigned to multiple persons with no provisions on what to do if one of them is unable to claim the inheritance, the remainder should go to the remaining beneficiaries. This would have left Stockird’s life partner, Aguirre, with the entire estate. However, the deceased aunt’s heirs filed additional complaints and the case was referred back to the lower court.

What to Do When This Happens

When facing probate court, individuals should seek legal counsel rather than representing themselves.

“Probate is not a do-it-yourself project. Probate court judges hold self-represented petitioners to the same standard as a probate lawyer, and the court is prohibited from giving you any legal advice. The probate process is full of pitfalls for the unknowing and mistakes will cost you time and money,” according to the Price Law Firm, probate lawyers in Redlands, CA.

This case is just one example of what can happen with an obscure will. That’s why it’s a great idea to use an experienced probate lawyer to draw up wills and trusts. Otherwise, the estate may be tied up in probate for years.