Case of the Month – The Estate of Frank J. Sanchez

The central issue in the appeal of this case is whether an executor (and personal representative of an estate) can act without an attorney in legal proceedings, in this instance, for the partition by sale of real property owned by the estate.

This case involves the probate of the estate wherein the decedent died in April 2016 with a will.  The will named his daughter as executor and personal representative of his estate. The father’s will left his separate property and his share of community property to the daughter and his two other children, disinheriting his surviving spouse from that portion of his estate.

The daughter, as executor and on behalf of her father’s estate, filed a complaint in probate court in January 2017, seeking partition by sale of a San Jose property owned by the father’s estate. The surviving spouse and the mortgage company for the property filed a motion to strike the complaint, arguing that the estate could not proceed without legal representation. The probate court issued an order granting the motion with leave to amend, giving the daughter the opportunity to hire an attorney for the estate.

The daughter appealed the probate court’s order, arguing that she had the right to file the partition action as a tenant in common and as a beneficiary of the estate. She contended that the Independent Administration of Estates Act (IAEA) authorized her to file the partition action in probate court. The surviving spouse and lender disagreed, claiming that an estate could not proceed without an attorney, in legal speak, in propria persona.

The Appellate Court examined whether the daughter could proceed in propria persona in a probate case to represent the estate’s beneficiaries, and confirmed the trial court’s ruling that she could not. The Appellate Court determined that the complaint primarily consisted of civil claims that could not be prosecuted by a non-attorney personal representative, even within a probate context.  They further found nothing in the IAEA that created the authorization claimed by the daughter.

In conclusion, the court decided to dismiss the daughter’s appeal, ruling that she could not proceed in propria persona as the personal representative of her father’s estate in a probate case for matters primarily consisting of civil claims. The court based its decision on established legal principles and the need for legal representation in such cases, whether inside or outside the probate context.