Let’s face it: Probate can be stressful, contentious, lengthy, and tiresome. It’s rarely a positive experience for a family to sort out a recently deceased loved one’s estate. If you’ve been through the process, you may have wished for a superhero to swoop in and save the day, solving the complicated problems in a flash.
It may seem like the probate judge can be just that superhero for families. But sometimes, his or her attempt at goodwill may not be so successful.
A court often relies on the idea of “equity” to decide an issue. Equity in the legal system essentially means that a court decides what is “fair” and rules accordingly. A judge attempted to use his equitable powers in a recent case (Oreal v. Steven Kwartin, PA) involving an estate’s debt that also included a significant amount of interest (so much that the interest exceeded the original amount of the debt). The estate failed to file a timely objection to the claim and instead filed for an extension. The court refused the extension request but granted a set-off against the interest, finding that the creditor delayed in perfecting and collecting on that debt, which caused the interest to reach such an excessive amount.
You may ask yourself, what’s wrong with that? It seems fair! It may, but the Appeals Court ruled that the judge had overstepped his bounds. A judge cannot invoke his equitable powers if there is specific rule or law already in place that tells the court what the outcome is supposed to be. The legislature makes the law, not the judge. Here, the law states that the estate must pay the debts of the decedent in addition to any interest included as part of the agreement for that obligation. In the Oreal case, because there was a law that provided the answer to the question of paying the interest, the court had to rule according to that law, even if it appears that the outcome might be unreasonable.
So, as much as we would like to shine the bat symbol in the sky and wait for a judge to appear as our superhero and save the day in stressful legal times, that’s not always possible. Just as we, everyday citizens, have to follow the law, so do judges, no matter how unfair the result may seem to them. Otherwise, we would have no one to enforce the law. And then we might truly need a superhero to impart justice!