Judge Kevin R. Culhane rotated into Sacramento County Superior Court’s probate department in January 2020.  He shared his initial impressions with members of the probate bar on February 18, 2020, at the monthly lunch of the Sacramento County Bar Association’s Probate and Estate Planning Law Section.

Noting that probate filings are on the rise, he likened the business of the Court’s probate unit (Department 129) to trying to fit ten gallons of water into a five-gallon bucket.

While long cause trials in probate cases are set for hearing at the downtown courthouse, short cause trials that can be heard in a few hours are set for Friday afternoons in Department 129, greatly limiting trial dates.  The first available date for short cause trials is about six months out.

Judge Culhane encouraged lawyers to check for and clear the probate calendar notes that are posted online about ten days before the scheduled hearing date.  For example, notice defects are common and might be cured if lawyers check and respond to the probate notes well in advance of hearing dates.    Responses to probate notes must be verified (signed under penalty of perjury) if they contain factual statements and a local form is available on the Court’s website.

E-filing has not yet reached Sacramento County Superior Court.  Anything that a party wants considered in Department 129 should be filed at least five days before the hearing date because of a backlog in scanning paper documents.  Filed papers go into a pile in the clerk’s office.  Until the filings are actually scanned into the court’s electronic system, the judge and probate attorneys cannot view them and have no way of knowing what was filed.

Judge Culhane commented on attorney’s fee requests.  He noted that he had 32 years in private practice, often representing law firms, so that experience plus his time on the bench has provided a foundation upon which he views fee claims.  He reads every line of fee applications, but is mindful of the challenges and expenses of private practice.

Requests for ex parte (i.e., expedited) relief in Department 129 should be based on truly exigent circumstances because the petitioner is asking to jump to the front of the line ahead of other litigants who are seeking to have their matters heard.  The ex parte applicant should articulate what harm will befall the applicant if the matter is not heard on an accelerated basis.

Monday is the day that the judge and court staff catch up case-related work, so when Monday is a holiday the court is in a pinch to get the usual work done.

The Friday morning guardianship calendar can be the most challenging.  Selecting a guardian is hugely important to the affected minor and the family dynamics can be murky.  For example, when Grandmother has guardianship and Mother comes into the picture and tries to terminate the guardianship, what’s in the child’s best interest?

Judge Culhane said he would like to help probate litigants resolve their cases with reduced expense by conducting mandatory settlement conferences, but noted limited space on the calendar to schedule them.  The best time for settlement conferences may be 11:00 a.m., when the court hears specially-set matters (after the main 9:00 a.m. calendar), but the courtroom must be cleared by Noon, and an hour may not be enough to facilitate a compromise.

Looking down the road, Judge Culhane mused that Sacramento County at some point will need two probate departments, as the press of work will become too much for one judge to handle.

Jeffrey Galvin is an attorney with Downey Brand LLP, based in Sacramento. He litigates trust and estate cases in Northern California, including disputes involving trust and probate administration, contests of trusts and wills, and financial elder abuse claims.