The Oakland City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to urge District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to empanel a grand jury that would investigate the county’s probate court system for unethical practices.
The resolution, nearly identical to one that was passed by the Berkeley City Council in October 2016, was brought forth by a group of Black families living in Alameda County who claim that, as a result of the courts’ unfair treatment, they have lost significant portions of their inheritances.
Generally, probate courts are meant to settle disputes between family members who have inherited assets in the form of a will or living trust and cannot come to an agreement about what to do with the inheritance.
Members of the Probate Court Reform Movement allege, however, that the probate court system has been engaging in financial abuse through court-appointed lawyers—or managing trustees—who rack up legal costs over years that are then placed as a lien against the properties.
These trustees then have the right to sell the properties, oftentimes below their market value, to ensure they receive a prompt payment, say group members.
The group members are also questioning whether the probate judges are receiving money from the sales since oftentimes where the money goes is not disclosed.
“The court-appointed trustees take over the property with all the power to sell, to manage it, to collect money—everything in the name of the trust, even putting their names on the property,” Maxine Ussery told the Post.
“They can decide who is going to buy (the property) and, of course, the real estate companies end up being their friends,” she said.
Ussery is one of 76 members of the Probate Court Reform Movement who have lost their inheritances in the probate court system.
Two of her father’s properties—a house and a commercial building in West Oakland that he bought in the 1950s— were sold by their managing trustee in 2013, with family members receiving compensation in the form of paying off the trustee’s fees.
When Ussery offered to buy back her father’s commercial space from the trustee in 2013, she said the attorney refused and sold the property to somebody else for $200,000 less than her initial offer.
Now, she and her brother are jointly fighting in court to keep the two last properties they partially inherited from their father from meeting the same fate.
The practice is so widespread, say members of the reform group, that a grand jury investigation is needed to see if the trustees are selling the assets unethically to real estate buddies and whether their actions are racially motivated.
According to Ussery, most of the families fighting to keep their properties in Alameda County are African American.
Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, who worked with the group to get the resolution to the City Council, brought up the ways that Black residents of Oakland—and most US cities—have been historically impacted by housing discrimination.
“Communities of color, particularly the African American community, have been targeted for redlining, our families paid premiums for mortgages and then were targeted for subprime mortgages that led to the foreclosure crisis where people lost their homes,” McElhaney said on Tuesday.
“We want to look at the equity in the selection of the judges and those entrusted with trusteeship to help families mediate,” she said.
“We also want to look at the outcomes to see whether or not there have been disparate impacts with respect to African American ownership that may be contributing to the loss of our populations.”
Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan pointed out the importance of Black property ownership in Oakland, especially considering the Bay Area’s displacement crisis.
“Black people in Oakland have suffered disproportionately from evictions, predatory loans and wrongful foreclosures, excessive rent increases, and homelessness,” Kaplan told the Post.
“As many African-American households have been pushed out of Oakland, causing suffering for individuals and families, it’s also weakened the ties of our communities and neighborhoods,” she said.
For more information about reform efforts, contact the Alameda County Probate Court Reform Movement at (831) 238-0096 or email email@example.com
Tulio Ospina is the assistant editor of the Oakland Post and editor-in-chief of El Mundo.