Login | May 29, 2020

Mahoning County Probate Court unveils a help desk

Legal News Reporter

Published: July 11, 2019

Mahoning County residents with limited resources who have questions about probate procedure or need assistance with simple estate transfers and guardianship proceedings now have a new place to go to get their legal questions answered free of charge.

Unveiled on June 4, the Mahoning County Probate Court Help Desk is designed to accommodate the growing number of pro se filers with minor probate issues.

“Probate avoidance techniques such as transfer on death, payable on death, beneficiary designations as well as joint and survivorship assets have made it easier for people to transfer assets without retaining an attorney,” said Mahoning County Probate Court Judge Robert Rusu Jr. “However, what often happens is that the decedent will forget to make an asset non-probate, which means the beneficiary needs to go to probate court to have it transferred after the death of the owner. This often leads to confusion on the part of the beneficiary.”

Judge Rusu said people mistakenly assume that court staff can advise them or help them fill out forms.

“Unfortunately those tasks constitute giving legal advice and only lawyers can provide legal guidance. Most court employees and clerks are not lawyers,” said Judge Rusu. “As a judge, I am not able to answer their questions and neither are the magistrates.”

In January, Judge Rusu and his staff began working on a solution to the dilemma faced by staff members, who were forced to turn away pro se filers with questions.

“Luckily we were able to secure funding to pay local lawyers at a discounted rate to man a help desk in the courthouse,” said Judge Rusu.

Staffed by estate planning and probate attorneys, the Mahoning County Probate Court Help Desk operates Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Individuals who stop by can get basic legal advice, help with forms or even receive assistance with alternative means of resolving matters in probate court.

The attorneys cannot help anyone to create a will or handle complicated and contested matters. However, they can suggest other low-cost legal services or refer the person to a private lawyer who can provide assistance.

So far there are nine lawyers who have agreed to man the court’s Help Desk for two-hour blocks twice a month.

James (Jamie) Dietz, a partner at Friedman & Rummell Co. is among the group. His first session took place on June 11.

“I feel it’s a good public service and I believe attorneys should give back to their community,” said Dietz. “I know there are a lot of people out there who need lawyers but can’t afford one.

“The people who I assisted generally had questions about how to transfer small assets left to them by a loved one, such as a low-value vehicle or a tax refund check,” he said. “In those cases people often feel an attorney is not necessary and indeed the cost of an attorney might well exceed the value of the asset.

“The help desk provides a good option to this group of individuals, who often have nowhere else to turn.”

While there is no charge for using the Mahoning County Probate Court Help Desk, individuals are still responsible for covering all court filing fees for the specific pleading. They are also limited to one visit per case.

“I strongly recommend that individuals still seek the assistance of their own lawyer and not represent themselves in court,” said Judge Rusu. “However if they are unable to do that, the help desk can make the probate process less confusing.”