How to Probate a Washington Descendant's Estate ---
To "Do It Yourself" without a Lawyer

Hizzoner Judge Mills

I’ve accompanied my share of clients to Court, mostly assisting them in their appointment as a Personal Representative, Guardian, or Conservator, and practically every one gets nervous, anxious, scared — “Oh, my goodness, tell me where to go, where to stand, what to do, what to say, etc.”  And I want to confess, when I began I was right there with all the same feelings.  Please indulge me while I tell one war story.

I went to law school in my mid-30s, as a second career.  In law school (UCLA) I concentrated on tax law, emphasizing estate planning — the last place I ever saw myself landing was in Court.  I wanted to become an “office” lawyer, not a “Court” lawyer.  Ha!  But that’s getting ahead of my story.

After graduating, I began my practice in a large downtown lawfirm, as their “newbie” in tax and estate planning.  After a few months, my supervising partner thought it would be good experience for me as a budding estate planner to actually “do” a probate and see what actually happens at the other end of a Will.  He assigned me a simple Decedent’s estate, “Richard, it’s yours.”  Uh-oh, I was out of my familiar — I had yet to set foot in a Courthouse.  I knew how to spell it, and that it was a few blocks north of the lawfirm, but that was about it.

“My” probate was a modest intestate estate of an elderly gentlemen, and we represented his middle-aged son, who, fortunately, was an exceedingly patient, recently retired fellow, several decades older than I.  A month or so later, I drove him to Court for his appointment and Letters.

I found the Courtroom (in LA, a task in itself), reported our presence to the clerk, and waited to be called.  A half-hour or so later, our case was called, we approached the bench, I handed the file to the Judge — so far, so good.  Truth be told, I was shaking like a leaf and wondering “Just how obvious is my anxiety, anyway?”  I was about to find out.

A brief digression: The then-Presiding Judge of the Probate Court was the Honorable Billy Mills.  Judge Mills was born and raised in Compton/Watts, had had an illustrious athletic career at UCLA, was the first black graduate of UCLA’s School of Law, had been elected and had served many distinguished years as the City Councilperson for South-Central LA (during Mayor Bradley’s reign), had been appointed several years before to the Superior Court by Gov. Ronald Reagan, and had earned his place on the bench.  Let’s just say, “Hizzoner” had a reputation  —  as one no-nonsense, street-smart, straight-talking dude who knew the law, wasn’t afraid to apply it, had little patience with lack of preparation, and could “get in your face” on a moment’s notice.  It was his Courtroom, and I was standing in front of him, my client by my side, my first time in Court, and feeling like I was about to wet my pants.

So there’s Hizzoner, up on his “throne,” in a Courtroom about half the size of a basketball court (with several dozen lawyers and parties out in the gallery waiting their turn), looking down at me, and I froze … just … froze.  Seconds go by, Hizzoner is waiting, my client’s gotta be wondering, I’ve turned to stone, the Courtroom becomes progressively silent, what seems like a minute passes …………. and finally, finally …

Hizzoner, in his big booming voice, for all those out in the gallery to hear, lets go: “Counselor, your first time in Court?”

Jeez, what’s a guy to say?  Richard, tell the truth, shut up, and take the medicine: “Yes,  uh, uh, uh, your h-h-honor.”  Ultimate embarrassment.

“Well, don’t worry about it,” countered Judge Mills.  “Every lawyer has their first day in Court.  I certainly had mine, and I bet if all the attorneys out in the gallery told the truth, they’d tell you that what’s happening to you now happened to them, too.  So, don’t worry about it, and in six months, I imagine that you’ll be thinking that you’re more comfortable here than you are at home.

“You’ve handed me the file.  That’s the first thing you’re supposed to do, and you did it.  Now, you’re supposed to tell me what you want.  I take it that that’s your client by your side.  What are you here for, anyway?”

Thank you, Judge Mills.  And God bless you for the grace of your initiation ceremony and thereafter for your continued mentoring.

Bottom-Line:  Just be yourself — Judges are people, too.  Most go out of their way to help beginning lawyers and pro se litigants.  And always, always, ALWAYS be honest and straightforward with a Judge — they have truly heard every story, excuse, and lie known to mankind.


In addition to Judge Mills, I am especially grateful to and wish to thank the following people who have played an instrumental role in my education, practice, and growth:

  • Max Delbruck, who discovered the problem I worked on, founded the lab I worked in, and became for me (and many others) my “Godfather” while at Caltech.  Max’s serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court would have been on par with Dick Feynman’s service on the Space Shuttle Challenger Commission.
  • Jesse Dukeminier, my first year property law professor at UCLA.  My first day in Jesse’s class, I knew I had “come home” and thereafter it just got better and better.
  • Bill McGovern, my first year contracts law and second year wills & trust professor at UCLA.  A giraffe of a man with a dry sense of humor, Bill could deconstruct a statute like no one I have ever seen.
  • Joel Rabinovitz, my ongoing tax professor at UCLA during my second and third years.  Blindfolded, with his hands tied behind his back, and at the bottom of a tank of ice-cold water, Joel could make the tax code do double twisting, triple gainers and score 5 6.0s.
  • The Honorable Anne Stodden, who ran the probate department for the LA County Courthouse and became my “Probate Godmother.”
  • Martin Webster, a fellow Caltech alum and head partner & chief rainmaker at the last firm in which I practiced in LA, for his wise counsel and unceasing support and encouragement — a simply great “boss.”
  • My ex-wife Victoria, who, for one of countless examples, did not bat an eye when I announced at age 33, “I want to go to law school.”
  • My now adult children, Dana & Burke, who foolishly “Let Daddy be Daddy” when, in spite of their protestations, he replied “Let me just finish this [Will, Trust, Petition, article, seminar, etc. etc. etc.].”
  • All the clients that I have been privileged to work for and with over the years, who have placed their trust in me and given me the joy of not only selfishly doing what I enjoy but also selflessly being of service to them and their families.
  • And lastly, my father, Les, who went to law school for what may have been all the wrong reasons: He wanted to be a politician.  That didn’t work out for him, he fell back on the law (at the height of the depression), and I grew up with a father who simply hated what he did for a living.  Guess what was last on my list of adult aspirations?  I wound up in academics and in my 30s discovered that the experience of other lawyers was different, for some greatly different, from my father’s.  In a sad, ironic, and bizarre way, I think it may have taken my father’s experience, and my early experience of it, for me to have ultimately found the law and become the lawyer that I have become, and for that I want to acknowledge and thank my father and express my sorrow for his years of what was for him, truly work — and what has become for me true joy.  I just can’t step into a Courthouse, wherever & however large or small & I’ve been in a lot of them, without getting a rush of feeling “I’m home.”  Hizzoner was right.  Ain’t life grand.

    I’d also like to own a part of my shadow regarding my relationship with my father.  We parted ways during my adolescence (my teen-age addiction to and surreptitious purchase of motorcycles did not help the equation) and were estranged from each other until my mid-30s, a little after my then-wife and I were blessed with our two children.  I began to wake up about parenting in general and my parents in particular.  Tentatively, I opened myself to my father, but as fate would have it, by then Alzheimer’s had taken over his mind, what little there was left of it, and it was too late.  In large part, I became his “father” and over-seer; he died several years later, truly “out of it,” during my last year of law school.  In time my practice became more and more specialized, concentrating in the areas of languishing, messy, contentious, or abusive probate matters, whether in Decedent’s estates, Guardianships/Conservatorships, or Trusts, and wouldn’t you know it, probably a third to a half of the matters involved victims of Alzheimer’s or related disabilities or breach of trust/fiduciary duty/conflict of interest/elder abuse issues.  For me probate is no longer something that I do or something that I want to do, but something that I have to do, and my sense of it is that at the unconscious level, it serves as the connection between me and my father, from whom I was estranged first as a result of my own adolescent, virtual “Alzheimer’s” and later as a result of his elderly, for-real Alzheimer’s. God bless him and fathers and sons.

— Thank You All – My eyes are moist —