Asking For A Friend: Cassandra Ceron Talks About Estate Planning &-Probate

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Transcript

Jeff Butler:

Today we’ll talk with Cassandra Ceron. Cassandra’s, a friend of mine. We’ve worked together on a lot of different cases. Typically, with our firm, if we handle a wrongful death case, we’ll contact Cassandra who specializes in probate court to set up the estate that has to get all the legal things set up to handle the property of someone who has passed away, including the legal claim that my office is working on. So Cassandra works at Georgia Estate Planning and Probate, and she is the probate side of that. So her partner, Kim Hoipkemier, with whom we’ve also spoken, typically handles the planning before death and Cassandra handles what happens afterward, whether there was a will or whether there wasn’t. She also does some really good work setting up guardianships and conservatorships for either a minor or someone who’s lacks the mental capacity to take care of their own stuff.

So our practice area is kind of dovetail. She and I are able to work together on some cases, but they’re also quite a bit different. She operates in a different court than we typically do. So I look forward to talking with her. I think we’ll all learn a lot. I’m Jeff Butler and I’m here today with Cassandra Ceron. Cassandra has to work with our law firm for a long time on a number of cases. We handle wrongful death cases, and she has set up, I don’t know how many estates for the decedents of our clients, but that’s not all she does. So we’re here to learn about some of the rest of it and how she can help folks. Tell us about your practice.

Cassandra Ceron:

So my practice is Georgia Estate Planning and Probate. I am the probate portion of it. So I do kind of anything related to probate. So I do deceased estates, which is much of what we do. I also do conservatorships, guardianships. I can help with petitions to compromise doubtful claim for a minor or an incapacitated adult. Really kind of anything that you would file in the probate court is going to fall under my practice area.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. So we talked recently with your law partner Kim Hoipkemier, and she is like death and taxes, but is before someone dies, right?

Cassandra Ceron:

Yes.

Jeff Butler:

And are you the after someone dies?

Cassandra Ceron:

I am.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

Aside from the guardianships and conservatorships I am. So after someone passed away, the family is going to come to me and we’re going to work through the probate process.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. And probate is sort of a word that lawyers use a lot, but no one else seems to. What does it mean?

Cassandra Ceron:

So probate is just one of the courts that we have in our court system. So it’s a specific court in every county.

Jeff Butler:

Right.

Cassandra Ceron:

It’s typically going to be a lot smaller than the state of superior court.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

So there’s going to be a couple of clerks, one or two judges, and then they handle all of this. So they handle all of the deceased estates, they handle all of the conservatorships, all of the guardianships. So it’s just a really specialized court within the court system.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. So I want to go through some sort of scenarios with you where I might be someone who needed your help, but before we get to that, who’s like a typical client for you?

Cassandra Ceron:

So we really deal with two types of clients. So the first is going to be the family member of someone who’s passed away. So they call us up and say, Hey, my mom, dad, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparents have passed away and we don’t know what to do. So what do we do next? And we’ll walk them through the entire process.

Jeff Butler:

That was going to be my first scenario.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep.

Jeff Butler:

So let’s go ahead and do it.

Cassandra Ceron:

Okay.

Jeff Butler:

Let’s say I just called you and I’m like, my dad just passed away and I can’t even spell probate. Can you help me?

Cassandra Ceron:

Yes, absolutely we can.

Jeff Butler:

What are you going to tell me?

Cassandra Ceron:

So we’re going to set up a meeting and we’re going to sit together and we’re going to talk about what your dad’s assets were, whether there was real property, whether it was bank accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance, and we’re going to help with all of that. So we don’t just help with the probate process, with filing the documents, getting someone appointed. We’re also going to help with retitling bank accounts, with filing claims for life insurance, filing claims for retirement accounts. We’re going to help retitle the house. If the house was joint with the rights of survivorship with mom, we’re going to get that retitled into just mom’s name so that whenever the property tax bill comes next year, it says just her name on it and it’s not a reminder there for her again.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah.

Cassandra Ceron:

And then we’re going to walk you through the probate process, through getting the petition together, the paperwork, filing it with the court. We’re going to tell you all the things that you need to do in order to settle dad’s estate.

Jeff Butler:

Can you only help me if my dad had a will?

Cassandra Ceron:

No.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

So it’s better.

Jeff Butler:

Makes life easier but.

Cassandra Ceron:

As Kim told you,

Jeff Butler:

Right.

Cassandra Ceron:

It does make things a lot easier, but no, we can help, even if dad didn’t have a will. It’s a different process and it’s a little bit more difficult, but we can absolutely walk you through that and get to where we need to be at the end of the day.

Jeff Butler:

You mentioned life insurance and I don’t think I had ever thought about that in the world of things that you do, and I probably should have. It strikes me, I mean, some folks may not even know whether life insurance exists or I don’t know how can you help with something like that?

Cassandra Ceron:

So we can help. Searching for whether there are policies is a little bit more difficult, but there is a process to go about doing that. But more importantly, we can help with the beneficiary forms. So when someone passes away and they had a retirement plan or they have life insurance, you call the administrator and you say, Hey, this person’s passed away and they’re going to send you an envelope with a stack of papers in it. And for most people that’s really overwhelming and it’s confusing and they don’t know what selections they need to make as far as how the distributions need to be made, whether it should go into an account with the life insurance company or whether they want a check made out to them. So we can really sit down with them and work through all of that.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah.

Cassandra Ceron:

All of the paperwork.

Jeff Butler:

That’s a call that our law firm gets sometimes. Help me with the life insurance and I’m glad to know to whom they should be directed to.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep,

Jeff Butler:

That’s good.

Cassandra Ceron:

We can help them.

Jeff Butler:

Cool. Okay. So I can see someone dies and you can kind of help sort it out, but some families get pretty darn complicated because there’s current marriages and old marriages and kids by both and sometimes multiple generations. Some might be older than the person who died. I mean, can you really help us sort all that out or is there like kind of a limit? I mean, you’re like, you’re going to owe me this much. Jeff, your family’s too messed up. I cannot help you.

Cassandra Ceron:

No.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

The only time that we kind of set our limit is if it gets to litigation where people are suing each other.

Jeff Butler:

Does that happen a lot?

Cassandra Ceron:

No, I think not as often as people think, because often these things can be worked out. You can send a letter and say, Hey, you need to be a little bit more reasonable. Send me this information, like let’s see if we can work this out. I mean, most of those things can be resolved prior to suing someone. Now if somebody needs to be sued, there are times that that happens, but that’s not something that our firm does.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah. And nobody wants to litigate over this kind of thing. I mean, I wouldn’t think.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s correct.

Jeff Butler:

It wouldn’t be top of my list of things to do.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s correct. We always say what we do is messy. We do messy but not litigious.

Jeff Butler:

We do messy.

Cassandra Ceron:

We do messy.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

So if you’ve got lots of people, if you’ve got lots of generations, if it’s a little bit all over the place, we can help.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. Here’s another scenario for you. Let’s say someone died, but it was a minute ago and things been cooking along, and the court has appointed someone to be in charge of this. I think they might be called an administrator or an executives or some crazy legal term that you lawyer people have come up with, but they ain’t doing their job and I’m worried that their going cutting you out of the will or out of the assets when they shouldn’t and I need some help making them do right.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yeah. So we can absolutely help with that. I know what the administrator’s job is and I know what their obligations are and I know,

Jeff Butler:

What are they?

Cassandra Ceron:

So they have an obligation to the beneficiaries of the estate, whoever that is. So whoever the heirs at law are, if you didn’t have a will and then whoever’s named in the will if you did. So the beneficiaries have a right to information. And so we do often step into those, kind of assert the rights of the beneficiaries, demand the information, and typically we can resolve those.

Jeff Butler:

Beneficiary or heirs, those word means someone who’s entitled to some money from the…

Cassandra Ceron:

So they’re not always the same people. Right. That heir at law is someone who under the law is entitled to receive, but they may not be a beneficiary if there’s a will because you could have a will and say, I leave everything to my dog and you could cut your family out, in which case your dog is the only beneficiary and your family, they’re your heirs, but they’re not your beneficiaries.

Jeff Butler:

So heir is someone who would take assets under the law or the absence of a will. A beneficiary is someone who actually does it under a will.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s right.

Jeff Butler:

Look at that. All right, cool. Next scenario. This is kind of related, but let’s say that I’ve got, my siblings and I have a parent who has passed away, but during the last year or so, that one sibling who never left home and got a real job was around a whole heck of a lot. And now I think they’re trying to do something funny with the estate.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep.

Jeff Butler:

Can I call you?

Cassandra Ceron:

You can. So,

Jeff Butler:

What are you going to do?

Cassandra Ceron:

Well, the first thing we’re going to do is go to the court and see if anything’s been filed, right? Because as a surviving child, you are entitled to notice of those things. So we’re going to see what the sibling has filed. If they’ve put forth a will, an alleged will, that leaves everything to them. That’s kind of the most common thing that we see. And then we’re going to see if we can resolve it amicably.

Jeff Butler:

So a will, let’s pretend that my narrow do well sibling who, the one that didn’t leave home and never did, whatever. What they’ve done is they took one of these legal pads and written out some stuff and there’s a signature on the bottom that appears to be my parent. And then there’s a stamp here. It looks like they went to the dollar store and got something to put a stamp on there. Is that going to be a good will or can you, no.

Cassandra Ceron:

No, no.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s not going to be a good will. And the court is probably going to pick up on that.

Jeff Butler:

Yeah.

Cassandra Ceron:

Because it’s a specialized court. They know what the rules are and so they know that that’s not a valid will. But if they don’t pick up on that, and if there’s some question about the validity of the will or about whether your parent had capacity to sign the will, if they were forced under duress to sign the will, those are all things that we can someone investigate. Now, again, if it’s going to be really litigious, that’s not something,

Jeff Butler:

That’s not you.

Cassandra Ceron:

That we handle, but we can help and see if we can get it resolved amicably, and if not, we can take everything that we have and hand it over to a litigator.

Jeff Butler:

It seems like I read a phrase one time called undo influence. Is that a thing?

Cassandra Ceron:

It is a thing.

Jeff Butler:

What does it mean?

Cassandra Ceron:

It means that someone was persuaded with someone who was close to them and was in kind of a trusting relationship to do things that they would not otherwise do. So you always think of like the housekeeper. Right. So you have someone who’s single, widow and the housekeeper comes every week and starts to become super friendly and spend a lot of time with the widow and convinces her to leave her $300,000 retirement plan directly to the housekeeper who they just met in the last two years. Right. That would be undue influence. That’s someone who has used their position to convince you to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. We’ve mentioned capacity a couple times here, which I think is what the ability to, like having the intellectual wherewithal to sign a contract, to sign a will to do something. Is that fair?

Cassandra Ceron:

That is fair.

Jeff Butler:

So let’s say someone in my family has limited capacity. Maybe it’s a older relative and Alzheimer’s is sitting in, they’re kind of in and out. Or it could even be someone who I think of my own cases all the time, but someone who sustained a brain injury in a car crash and they can’t think for themselves anymore. Right. So what do I do in this situation?

Cassandra Ceron:

So that’s where planning really helps ahead of time, right, because if there was a power of attorney in place, they would name someone to handle these things. But if planning wasn’t done, or if it was done a really long time ago and it’s no longer good or what people want,

Jeff Butler:

Yeah. Things changed.

Cassandra Ceron:

Then we can go to the probate court and we look at doing a conservatorship and or guardianship. So,

Jeff Butler:

What is that?

Cassandra Ceron:

So a guardianship is over the person. So it’s someone to make sure that you are safe, that you’re fed, that you’re dressed, that you have all of the things that you need as a person.

Jeff Butler:

So the court could appoint another someone, like a trusted person by the relatives or by the court, I guess,

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep. Yep.

Jeff Butler:

To take care of whoever it is, don’t have capacity.

Cassandra Ceron:

To make sure that they are safe, is really the goal there.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

And then a conservatorship is over the money, over the assets. So that’s the court appointing someone to manage their finances, to make sure that their bills are paid, to make sure that their income is received and that the lights stay on and all of those things. They’re going to manage all of their finances and it’s often the same person because it’s typically going to be a close family member, but not always.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. Guardianship person and conservatorship money.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep. Or property.

Jeff Butler:

Or property. Okay. Cool. Another little scenario for you. Let’s say that I’ve got a minor, a kid who comes into a large amount of money, maybe from a lawsuit situation, maybe from an older relative who died, maybe they won the lottery or one of those kid beauty contests [inaudible 00:15:32]? One of those.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep. Yep.

Jeff Butler:

One of those.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep.

Jeff Butler:

Probably not any of my kids. [inaudible 00:15:36]. Anyway. Anyway. So how am I going to handle this? Obviously I can’t run off with the kid’s money.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s right.

Jeff Butler:

I don’t want the cops coming after me. What are we supposed to do?

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s right. So as of July this year, they just increased the amount that minors can hold to $25,000. So it used to be 15,000.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

And now it’s 25,000. So if a minor comes into more than $25,000 worth of money, you have to do something with that. You have to either put it in an annuity, which is one of the options, but some people don’t want to do that. They want access to the money now.

Jeff Butler:

What’s an annuity?

Cassandra Ceron:

An annuity is a structured settlement that is essentially an insurance plan that pays out after the minor turns 18.

Jeff Butler:

Oh.

Cassandra Ceron:

So it’s usually going to pay out over three or four years. So that’s typically from a personal injury settlement, something like that. They put the money into this annuity, it generates income, and then it’s larger when they turn 18 and they have kind of a college fund or something to start their life with as they become an adult.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. But that wasn’t the only option.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s not the only option.

Jeff Butler:

And I interrupted you.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s okay.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

So the alternative is a conservatorship, again, similar to the conservatorship for incapacitated adult, but it’s going to be for a minor. So you’re going to go to the court and ask to be appointed as conservator, and then you have to report to the court what you do with that money and what you plan to do with that money. So you don’t just get to take custody of it and do with it whatever you want. It’s only as approved by the court.

Jeff Butler:

So it’s not for me to go on ski vacations?

Cassandra Ceron:

Definitely not.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

Definitely not. It’s for the care of the child and for reasons that the court deems appropriate.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. And then, you worked with me and some other personal injury lawyers that are friends of mine on setting up the estate for wrongful death. Tell us a little bit about that process.

Cassandra Ceron:

So it’s really similar to any other state, right? I’m going to find the heirs at law, typically there’s not going to be a will. So I’m just finding the family member that everybody can agree to and then I can work directly with the attorney in charge or with the family to get everything set up. And then once I get it set up, I hand over letters and then you can settle your case as needed and I’m just available if needed.

Jeff Butler:

You’ve created an estate that has authority to enter into a settlement agreement so we can do our thing.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep. Yep.

Jeff Butler:

So just a couple more topics I want to ask you about. And the first is, so Kim, your partner told me that if I die without a will, the state of Georgia is going to decide what happens with the money.

Cassandra Ceron:

That’s right.

Jeff Butler:

And I don’t know what the heck they want to do, but I assume it is written down somewhere.

Cassandra Ceron:

It is written down somewhere, yes.

Jeff Butler:

What does it say?

Cassandra Ceron:

So it says if you have only a spouse and no children, it goes to all your spouse,

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

Which is great. But if you have a spouse and children, then it’s going to go equally to your spouse and children. But your spouse receives at least a third. So if you have two kids, it’s a third, a third, a third. Most people don’t want that. Most people want it to go to their spouses, who is the parent of their children and let them take care of the kids with that money. The alternative is if you’ve got minor children, then you’re creating more work where you’ve got to do a conservatorship in addition to the estate because now your minor children can come into money.

Jeff Butler:

Yes. Okay. That makes sense.

Cassandra Ceron:

So it makes it more complicated and then as we get further out, we can,

Jeff Butler:

What if there’s no spouse? I mean,

Cassandra Ceron:

Yeah. So if there’s no spouse, then it’s just going to go equally to your children. If there’s no children, then it’s going to go to your parent, no children, no spouse, then it goes to your parents. No parents, it goes to your siblings, no siblings, it goes to your grandparents and then you start, at some point you start counting degrees of kinship. So I have had estates where we were dealing with second cousins.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. That’s got to be pretty rare though.

Cassandra Ceron:

Not as rare as you would,

Jeff Butler:

Really?

Cassandra Ceron:

Think it would be.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

We had several.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

We have had several where we’ve had to find second cousins and get them to sign.

Jeff Butler:

Fair enough. Okay. So last thing I wanted to ask you about. I’ve heard this term that I think is in your world I don’t really get, something about a year support.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yes. So year support is one of the most powerful tools that we have in the probate court.

Jeff Butler:

Okay.

Cassandra Ceron:

So a minor child and a surviving spouse are entitled to a year’s support and that’s defined as kind of whatever, how they lived prior to your death. So the amount of money that’s required to sustain them for one year. But the interesting thing is when you file for this year’s support, you can ask for whatever you want and as long as no one files an objection, you will get it. So you could go to the court and say, I want absolutely everything and it’s $10 million. And if no one files an objection, you get $10 million and you get $10 million to the exclusion of the beneficiaries, to the exclusion of the creditors. You can take an entire estate and set it aside for year support if no one objects.

Jeff Butler:

So let me get this right, my relative had a $100,000 and passed away. But the bad news from my perspective is they owed $150,000 to Visa, another undisclosed sum to the IRS. And there’s this weird dude from Alabama who’s claiming he was owed money too.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yep.

Jeff Butler:

But you’re saying I asked for a year support and nobody objects.

Cassandra Ceron:

If you’re a minor child or a surviving spouse, then yes, that all goes to you. Visa’s not getting paid back. The IRS is for sure not getting paid back.

Jeff Butler:

What about the loan shark?

Cassandra Ceron:

Definitely not the loan shark.

Jeff Butler:

Okay. Okay. All right. You told me a story one time Cassandra about a house, and I think it was a child who really didn’t have a lot of options financially, but you were able to use a year support.

Cassandra Ceron:

Yes.

Jeff Butler:

Tell us about that.

Cassandra Ceron:

So I had a case come to me. It was actually three minor children. Their dad was a very high income earner, but really the only asset was this home that they lived in. There was lots of debt, $2 million to the IRS, $250,000 to American Express. Another probably half a million dollars worth of other debts kind of hanging out there. But this house had some equity in it and so we were able to have the house set aside for the minor children as years support, and that is what set them up to be taken care of for a little bit of time.

Jeff Butler:

How much the IRS get?

Cassandra Ceron:

Zero.

Jeff Butler:

Great work. Thank you for coming to talk to us.

Cassandra Ceron:

My pleasure.

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