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By Susan Francis

The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill this year that will require Registers to waive the probate fee in specific situations. The bill amended a law that went into place last year that clarified that Registers had to power to waive a fee but did not require it. This year’s action, HB1305/SB261, was a one-word change in the law, amending “may” to “shall” in “A register of wills shall waive any fees under this section for the administration of an estate” when one of two reasons are identified.

First, the property subject to opening the estate is: 1) going to be transferred to an heir who currently resides in the property, or 2) encumbered by a lien and subject to tax sale.

Second, the estate does not have the funds to pay the fees because of poverty, which is defined as 1) either the decedent’s family’s household income is less than 50 percent of Maryland median income or 2) the personal representative is being assisted through a Maryland Legal Services Corporation funded legal service program, like Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS).

Both criteria are required to meet the guidelines for waiving the fees. The bill awaits Governor Hogan’s signature and will go into effect on October 1, 2019. The legislation is available at http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2019RS/bills/hb/hb1305T.pdf.

MVLS welcomes this legislative change

Probate fees can be cost-prohibitive for many of our clients.  Our typical client has been living in the multi-generational house for many years. It gets “passed down” to them when their parent or grandparent passes away. There’s rarely a will, and no steps have been taken to avoid probate. Families often seek help from MVLS when they are at risk of tax sale or in some other way are at risk of losing their home. In order to help them maintain their housing, we seek to make sure they are receiving the Homeowner’s Property Tax Credit, which can be critical to keep someone out of tax sale, local water credits and access to all home repair programs. However, without their name being on the deed to their property, they are shut out of all of these programs, even though they have lived in their homes for years, paid their taxes and upkept their properties.

For low-income homeowners, the cost of publication, bonds, probate fee, lien certification, recordation fee and being current on their property tax and water bill is simply out of reach. While this legislation won’t eliminate all of these barriers, it will remove a major one. Importantly, it will also create consistency across all of the Registers throughout the state.  

MVLS plans to work with the Registers throughout the State with the hope of utilizing a standard form similar to the one used by legal services programs in other state judicial filings to waive filing and appearance fees. Over the past several years, MVLS has greatly expanded its estate planning work, launching an Advance Planning Project last year which involves substantial community engagement, particularly in Baltimore City to overcome the myth that low-income individuals don’t need to do estate planning. This project highlights why low-income individuals need to plan to avoid probate through life estate deeds and proactively setting up payable and transfer on death accounts. These efforts ensure the assets they have accumulated can successfully pass to their next generation and help avoid the risk of financial exploitation. In April, MVLS launched its most recent efforts in this area, the Homeowner: My Home, My Deed, My Legacy campaign, which involves a public awareness campaign and homeowner clinics to change the conversation about how poorer communities can preserve their assets. More information is available at www.myhomemydeed.org.

If you are an attorney looking to help the less fortunate navigate estate planning and deed recordation issues, we can use your help at upcoming Homeowner clinics. Please contact me at sfrancis@mvlslaw.org to get involved.

Susan Francis is Deputy Director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.