Posted at 11:44 AM on March 12, 2010
by Paul Tosto
Given how complicated people's finances have become in this recession, I've been thinking about Minnesota's probate system and how it operates. I want to get a discussion rolling and, as always, I want people to share their stories.
I'll start by sharing my ignorance.
Probate is one of those legal fields that seems mysterious and worrisome. Money, death and human emotion typically don't do well together but all three are in the room in probate, the process of settling a dead person's estate, paying bills and distributing any assets.
I had a theory the recession was generating more contested probate cases -- families fighting it out over a deceased relative's assets in hard times. It's a question that's been debated lately on probate blogs. But it seems to be wrong.
Here's data I got this week from the state courts system (click on the chart for a larger view).
The system doesn't keep data on contested probate. But the number of "formal supervised" cases, those requiring a "completely formal probate proceeding under continuous supervision of the court," are down.
Probate cases were rising, mostly because the World War I baby boomers, people born between 1920 and 1932 were dying in large numbers, he said.
"Probates are taking longer because of the slow-down in real estate sales," he added. "Also, the counties are more active in collecting on Medical Assistance Liens. Certain types of cases require medical assistance lien clearance."
"I tell my clients that probate is easy as long as there are no large tax problems and the heirs get along. If the heirs fight they can make a simple probate complicated. If they do get along they can also make a complicated estate fairly easy."
I'd love to hear from people who've gone through the system, lawyers and judges who work with probate and others. Tell me what works and what doesn't and how things have changed because of the recession.
We'll build a discussion and I'll put it on MinnEcon.
Post something below or contact me directly and share your probate story.
Paul's recent post on jobs versus the environment reminded me of a classic political economy problem deeply embedded into the whole discussion of freer trade.
The case for freer trade and open markets is overwhelming. Economic evidence and economic history alike support the view that freer trade over time invigorates economy's by encouraging the spread of new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of organizing everyday life (to paraphrase economist Joseph Schumpeter). Consumers enjoy lower prices and greater choice. Competition from overseas rivals encourages corporate efficiency and innovation.
Here's the thing: The benefits of a free trade and open border policy come with a considerable price tag. Not everyone benefits. As everyone who took Economics 101 knows, the gains from trade are dispersed throughout the economy while the costs are highly concentrated. Too many employees have felt the downside of "creative destruction." Thanks to the routine corporate restructurings, downsizings, reengineerings--pick your favorite euphemism--during good and bad times (like now), there's little job security and stagnant wages.
Combating the downside doesn't mean adopting protectionist measures. (Just ask the 1930s protectionists Messrs. Smoot and Hawley or look at the experience of Cuba and North Korea.) But let's agree on that and move on.
Instead of writing editorials and Op-ed pieces extolling the virtues of free trade, the economics profession should declare victory. The free trade debate has largely been won even though sometimes its two-steps forward and one-step back. Economists and other interested in the issue should focus more of their intellectual firepower on coming up with ways to support workers dislocated by international competition, deregulation, and technological innovation. In an era of high job loss, unemployment, wage stagnation, long-term unemployment, and underemployment, unaffordable or unavailable health insurance, and increasingly at-risk pension plans the truly important questions involve constructing a better safety net for workers (and not their companies). Healthcare reform is one potential step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done.
This way, the benefits of free trade are enjoyed and the downside minimized.