With the territory’s probate laws now under debate in the Senate, Enterprise Zone Commission officials are trying to stress the importance of proper estate planning — in particular, making sure families have a will, trust or some other form of documentation in place that could help speed the process along.
Senators had similar intentions when they passed a new Uniform Probate Code bill in December 2009, but since then, the 300-page-plus document — which was subsequently signed into law and supposed to be implemented this July — has come under heavy scrutiny from the legal community, which, in a recent Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting, said it might just be easier and less confusing to amend the existing code, which is still in effect.
Similar concerns were raised Wednesday night at a seminar held on St. Thomas by the Enterprise Zone Commission, as a panel of local attorneys tried to quickly break down in general session pieces of the Uniform Probate Code that most affected residents, including a section that dealt with ownership of property belonging to a couple that got divorced and then remarried to other people.
The more than 100 people attending the meeting gasped in surprise when attorneys explained that the new uniform code would, if it’s the wife who dies first, still award the property to her husband if the couple was just separated, but, if they were divorced, look at the value of the estate and how long the couple had been married.
As the questions continued, some residents also suggested that senators should have thoroughly researched each issue before passing the bill. While attorneys continued the explanations, it was also pointed out that the citizens’ concerns over the new law could be moot if the governor signs off on an amendment passed by senators during last week’s full session.
Uniform bills such as this one are drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, which is made up of a coalition of attorneys, judges and other appointees from various states and territories. Along with seeking to streamline local laws dealing with wills and how estates are settled after death, the new law also contains provisions for a uniform power of attorney, a uniform prudent management of institutional funds act and a uniform custodial trust act.
Because of the community’s concerns, however, the amendment sponsored by Sen. Usie R. Richards during last week’s session repeals just the sections having to do with probate, which would still leave the territory functioning under the code currently being used.
The back and forth between the bills prompted the Enterprise Zone Commission to sponsor the workshops on estate planning where the residents, for about an hour after the general session, were able to learn about everything from creating a will to how to navigate probate under the system already in place.
Calling it a "successful conference," commission head Nadine Marchena-Kean explained that so many families in the territory have no form of documentation, whether will or trust, so ownership of their estates are left up in the air after they die.
"We also want them to understand the importance of going to probate and filing their documents on time," she added. "We felt the need to take action so they could know what to do."