What Are Harris County Probate Courts Doing to Innovate in the Time of COVID-19
Christopher C. Burt, Barbara R. Light
Living and working in the time of COVID-19 is certainly unprecedented, to say the least. To make matters worse, the difficulty of dealing with the probate and administration of a loved one’s estate now seems almost impossible. However, the Harris County Probate Courts are finding innovative ways to keep the Courts open and dockets moving. There are four statutory probate courts in Harris County, and each court has slightly different procedures, but generally, probate matters in Harris County are being handled as follows:
- Courts are still holding hearings and bench trials. Although jury trials have been suspended, the Probate Judges are accessible for conferences, hearings, and bench trials through Zoom video conferencing. Witnesses, executors, and all parties who need to testify can safely do so from the comfort of their home via this conference service. Testimony of all kinds, whether to probate a will, to open an intestate administration, or establish a decedent’s heirship are all permitted by teleconference. Participants should be aware that recording court proceedings held using Zoom is strictly prohibited by law.
- If you are involved in an estate administration, guardianship, or other probate matter, you may be asked to execute a document in the presence of a notary. In response to COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, Governor Abbott signed an order suspending the physical presence requirement for notaries. This suspension allows notaries to execute such documents without being physically in the presence of the person whose signature is been verified. Further, for some documents, the Harris County Probate Courts are allowing the use of unsworn declarations under penalty of perjury in lieu of a notarized signature.
- Finally, the deadlines for renewing certifications, registrations, and licenses have been extended until May 31, 2020.
While it is unclear when courts will return to normal, probate courts are working to ensure it is as close to “business-as-usual” as possible. Be advised, each court and county is different and many have individually tailored their responsibility to ensure the safety of parties, counsel, and court staff during this time. We are well versed in the new policies and procedures of each Court and would be happy to help you navigate this new terrain. Should you have any questions or need assistance regarding a new or on-going probate matter, do not hesitate to contact the probate attorneys at BoyarMiller.