I first became involved with the Elder and Health Law Clinic at McGeorge School of Law after taking a class on Elder and Health Law by Professor Melissa Brown. I wanted to get real-world experience assisting clients with estate planning, accessing health care, and any other legal matters that they sought out the clinic for help with.
I assumed that I would be handling things like the drafting of estate planning documents or assisting people with accessing their healthcare. However, there has been a greater variety of legal matters than I had anticipated, especially those involving litigation. At the Clinic, I have assisted seniors in asserting their own autonomy in situations where their right to manage their own affairs was being challenged by representing clients at hearings, taking and defending depositions, and preparing a probate case for trial.
My experiences at the Elder and Health Law Clinic made me passionate about estate planning as a way to avoid terrible family disputes over the property in probate court. My exposure to these issues at the Clinic led me to reflect on my own family history.
My paternal grandparents had four children that they raised in a four-bedroom house in Rosemead, California. One of them, my aunt, is developmentally disabled. Eventually, all of the children grew up and moved out of the house except, for my aunt.
Just as my grandparents were beginning to enjoy retirement, my grandmother died in an accident. My grandfather remarried and added onto the back of the house to make a new living space for him and his new wife with a separate entrance. My aunt occupied the original part of the house. Later, my grandpa and step-grandma decided to move into a smaller place of their own.
Out of concern for his adult daughter, my grandpa asked his oldest son to move into the addition that he was vacating and to look after the property as well as his developmentally-delayed sister. To facilitate having his oldest son look after the property for his sister, my grandpa transferred ownership of the house to his oldest son.
The son – my uncle – moved into the house with his new wife. They soon began having conflicts with my aunt over the shared parts of the property, such as the yard and driveway. Sometime after that, my uncle acquired second and third mortgages on the house that he eventually stopped paying. He moved out of the family’s house and into a new one with his wife, leaving behind his developmentally-delayed sister to face eviction. These events occurred more than a decade ago and caused in a big rift in the family, as well as the loss of the family home. However, none of his siblings, including my dad, took any action against my uncle.
Through my experience at the Elder and Health Law Clinic, I realized that a special needs trust would have been a better mechanism for my grandpa to use to preserve the family home for his disabled daughter’s benefit. Also, my father or one of his siblings could have challenged the transfer of the family home to my uncle before the statute of limitations ran out.
Recently, I received word that my uncle passed away. He leaves behind his second wife and his two adult daughters from his first marriage. In the months before his death, one of his two daughters drove across the country to visit him only to be turned away by his wife. I intend to write to my two cousins informing them of their right to discover any wills or trusts that their father may have, as well as provide information regarding the law on intestate succession in regards to their father’s separate property – separate property that might be traceable back to my grandfather’s ill-advised transfer of the family home to my uncle.
My volunteer work at the Elder and Health Law Clinic has taught me the value of competent estate planning and how to access justice and equity in probate court when a lack of estate planning causes harm.
By Marianne Sanchez, a third-year law student at McGeorge School of Law.