With the support of legal experts and advocates, Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6) is introducing the “Strengthening Probate Administration Amendment Act of 2023,” legislation to update and reform the complicated probate administration process. Probate is the legal process of collecting, distributing, and administering a deceased person’s assets without a written will and testimony. It resolves important end-of-life matters and preserves intergenerational wealth, but the process can be incredibly complex, and the vast majority of residents navigate it alone, acting without legal help in 97% of all small estate cases. These challenges particularly disadvantage low-income residents, seniors, and residents of color, who are less likely to have the capacity to understand the complexities or hire a lawyer.
“In the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death, you should have the time and space to grieve – not be worried about jumping through unnecessary legal hoops. And the ability to simply administer their estate shouldn't depend on your income or only be available to those with the capacity to navigate a confusing legal process. Alot’s at stake in probate - when people struggle with these legal barriers, they can even miss out on an inheritance, a home, or other high-value items,” said Councilmember Allen. “That’s why making probate – a process many of us will have to navigate - more lay-friendly is so important."
The legislation makes a series of reforms based on recommendations from the Council for Court Excellence and the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission in a February 2022 report on improvements to the administration of probate, including:
Streamlines the appointment of representatives for deceased people’s estates: The current system can needlessly delay the start of the probate process because no one can act on behalf of the deceased person until a representative for the estate has been appointed by a judge. The bill would remove a step from the process for many estates by allowing experienced court staff, who already evaluate every petition, to appoint a personal representative or send the petition to a judge for further review.
Reduces the publication requirement for Notice of Probate: The bill would reduce the requirement for an estate to publish a “notice of probate” from three weeks and in two different publications down to two weeks in only one publication, saving time and money.
Creates an Electronic Will Registry: A missing will can delay or even prevent probate, burden families, and prevent a loved one’s wishes from being carried out. Paper wills can be lost, damaged, or mistakenly destroyed, and not everyone has a lawyer to store their will. The bill would create an electronic will registry to provide safe storage for anyone who wants to file a will and make it easier to find when needed.
Expands the number of estates that qualify as “small estates”: Estates considered “small estates” go through a much simpler process than larger estates with many assets. The legislation would change the definition of a small estate to mean one that is worth up to $80,000, up from $40,000. This will make the probate process for many estates faster, easier, and less expensive.
Increases the allowable reimbursement rates for funeral expenses: Current law allows for reimbursement of funeral expenses up to $1,500. The bill will increase the reimbursement rate for funeral expenses to up to $10,000.
- Allows transfer by affidavit for small estates: A new transfer by affidavit process will allow legal transfer of some property without having to go to court, avoiding the current longer and more complicated process.
Reforming the probate process is supported by organizations who do the work on the ground and see every day how it harms the people it is meant to benefit: “Probate can be a long and costly process, so many people put off probate until an emergency arises. This bill has several provisions that will make the process simpler and easier, which is especially important for low-income people and others who cannot afford an attorney. It will allow probates to be opened quicker, reduce costs associated with probate, and even allow some assets to be transferred to heirs without having to go through probate at all,” said Tina S. Nelson, Managing Attorney with Legal Counsel for the Elderly.
“These changes will benefit everyone but especially people with fewer financial resources. When someone loses a loved one, they’ve been through enough. This bill would cut red tape and delays that burden families and jeopardize their ability to pay the bills on time,” Danielle Burs, Senior Policy Counsel at the Council for Court Excellence said. “We thank Councilmember Allen for introducing and championing this bill and encourage the rest of the Council to vote in favor of passage."
From the DC Affordable Law Firm, which is one of the few practitioners in probate matters: “Probate is one of the most legally complex processes in the District of Columbia, yet estate administration is a necessary hurdle most families must navigate to ensure the passage of property and preserve intergenerational wealth following the death of a loved one,” said Gabby Mulnick Majewski, the Executive Director of the DC Affordable Law Firm. “Today’s bill marks the first step in promoting reforms to the District’s probate process that will enhance access to justice and, ultimately, improve the experience of families navigating grief and loss. Thank you to Councilmember Allen for introducing this bill, thank you to the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, the Council for Court Excellence, and the D.C. Estate Administration Working Group for their leadership in this realm.”
The Strengthening Probate Administration Amendment Act of 2023 is being co-introduced by Councilmembers Pinto, Frumin, Lewis George, Parker, Henderson, and Bonds.