I'm a Maryland lawyer, and in my experience, legal questions almost never seem to have easy answers. Also, in the probate and property area, the answers differ from state to state. (In the case of property transfers, sometimes they vary from county to county!)
You might want to talk to a lawyer in the state and even the locality where the property transfer or probate issue comes up.
Thanks to you both.
I'm in Chicago, writing a scene set in Northern Wisconsin.
The circumstances are...guy was a suicide in January of '86. He was married but my protagonist, Reno, doesn't know that yet. Reno, is trying to find the name of the owner of the property where the suicide occurred. It's now in trust (different name from the dead man). Reno notices that the title to the property passed to the trust less than a month after the suicide. What I'm trying to set up is that the judge was on the verge of retirement, impatient with the system, and signed off on the property transfer as a favor for a buddy(one of the bad guys) without waiting for probate to clear. It's a pivotal scene because it makes Reno suspicious of the buddy and his cronies. If such a ploy would be noticed right away, or so out of line that the judge couldn't get away with it, it won't work for me.
I don't need to be strict about the legalities involved but I also don't want anyone reading it to react the way I do when I see an author put a silencer (or a safety) on a revolver!
Here in NC all probate matters are handled by the Clerk of Court, sitting as Ex Officio Judge of Probate. A judge would have to leapfrog the Clerk to do this, and I doubt if it would hold up if challenged. But Wisconsin is very likely totally different. You need a Wisconsin lawyer, for sure.
In Maryland, probate can be handled either administratively or judicially. If someone dies with a will (and having one's money pass to a trust after death requires a will provision to that effect), it's usually done administratively through the Register of Wills office and judges don't get involved unless the will's challenged or it's a badly-written will and the need to appoint a guardian for minor children arises (to the best of my recollection--it's been 12 years since I last practiced law). The property transfer in administrative probate proceedings would probably be handled by a private attorney, hired by the decedent's personal representative (the Maryland term for "executor").
So, you see? Not so simple. :) And it really does vary a lot from state to state.
Thanks both of you. I think I'm in way over my head with this! Perhaps something less complicated like a questionable signature on a deed or something nefarious about the notary will work fine. I knew I should have gone to law school one of those times I managed to pass the LSAT!
Or Doug, you could set up a trust with a bogus trustee and beneficiary so the property is excluded enitrely from the probate estate by being thrasferred before getting included in the estate. This is done in many jurisdictions and would let you side-step the whole probate matter but still give Reno something fishy when he discovers that the deceadent didn't know the beneficiary of the trust nor does any of his friends or family. It's kind of identity theft a day later than normal...
I like this...thanks John. I'm still playing with it.
I'm leaning toward having the whole thing rest on the shoulders of the notary...who was the Judge's secretary when he was in private practice. Perhaps she signed off as witnessing a signature that she knew was forged...and perhaps the Judge (now)was the lawyer (then) and he knew it too ...nothing proveable but my character is highly suspicious when he discovers the Judge and my bad guy went to school together.
Easy: call the bar association in the state in which your story is set. Tell them you're a novelist, concerned with getting the details right. Ask them to direct you to the best person to chat with to get the answers you need to the questions you'll ask. Most organizations of that nature have some sort of PR or community relations person who can field your questions or know who will be able to.
In my experience, people enjoy being helpful and they like dipping their toes into an area of life -- that of the novelist -- that is otherwise not open to them.