This month Judge Steven M. Gevercer will replace Judge David F. De Alba as the probate judge in Department 129 of the Sacramento County Superior Court. Judge Gevercer was appointed to the bench by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012 and previously served in the California Attorney General’s Office.
Judges typically spend a year or two in Department 129 before moving on to other assignments within the court. Fortunately for all, the dedicated court staff who support Department 129 provide continuity over the years.
Judge Gevercer’s assignment to Department 129 provides an occasion for an overview of the probate court in Sacramento.
Department 129, located on the second floor of the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse amidst family law departments, handles all proceedings under the Probate Code, ranging from guardianships, conservatorships and routine probate matters to hotly-contested trust and estate disputes.
Trust and estate litigation venued in Sacramento County usually begins with the filing of a verified petition in Department 129. The clerk’s office assigns a case number and hearing date. In trust matters, the initial hearing date usually falls about 45-60 days after the petition is filed.
The petitioner then serves the petition on all interested parties, along with a probate-specific form of notice, California Judicial Council Form DE-120.
Those appearing in Department 129 should be familiar with Chapter 4 of Local Rules of the Sacramento County Superior Court, in addition to the California Probate Code and Title 7 of the California Rules of Court.
Court filings in Department 129 generally are available on the Internet through the Public Case Access System. In particular, litigants should be on the lookout for probate calendar notes for their upcoming matters. The court generally posts such notes ten days in advance of the hearing. The notes identify deficiencies in the filed papers, providing the litigant with an opportunity to resolve them in advance of the hearing, as described in Local Rules 4.01 and 4.02. Litigants should use the court’s “Response to Calendar Notes” form and file it at least five court days prior to the hearing. Note that the response, like other pleadings in probate, must be verified.
Interested parties who object to petitions usually file a verified written response and objection a week or more before the hearing date, such that the court has an opportunity to review it prior to the hearing. California Probate Code section 1043, however, allows parties or their counsel to simply show up at the hearing (no advance notice required) and state an oral objection.
Most probate petitions are unopposed and thus are resolved on the initial hearing date if in good order. If there is a viable objection, the court typically will continue the matter for further proceedings. The initial hearing does not take the form of an evidentiary trial. Instead, there are often several dozen cases called on each morning’s calendar.
Short cause trials occur in the Family Relations Courthouse. While the judge assigned to Department 129 may conduct the trial, the parties may be assigned to a judge from another department, possibly one without experience in probate. Long cause trials occur at the Gordon D. Schaber Sacramento County Courthouse in downtown Sacramento.
Trial practice is generally the same as a civil bench trial – no juries are involved and the verified pleadings do not substitute for the presentation of admissible evidence. Local Rule 4.13 provides for the pre-trial filings, including a trial statement, motions in limine, and a confirmation that exhibits have been exchanged. The rule also provides instructions with regard to the pre-marking and listing of exhibits.