July is my least favorite month.
Last Tuesday – July 7th – marked the fourth anniversary of a hearing I attended in a Miami-Dade County civil court’s probate division judge’s chambers to settle a dispute between my half-sister Victoria and me over our late mother’s estate. Vicky had filed a “Lost or Destroyed Will” petition in late January of 2016, thinking that because I had not filed Mom’s 2010 amended last will and testament with the court in 2015, no such document existed. I sat in the private chambers of Circuit Court Judge Bernard Shapiro – since then retired – with my pro bono lawyer and a witness to my mother’s will on my side of a long table, while Vicky and her attorney sat across from me. The judge and a stenographer sat at the head of the table, in a corner lined with legal books and stacks of case files.
Vicky’s lawyer spoke first. He was a portly man who resembled the late actor Charles Durning. He wore an immaculate tailored blue suit with a matching tie and a white pocket corner. He wore glasses and spoke in a quiet, measured tone of voice. Nothing like the melodramatics on TV.
“Your Honor, we’re here because my client, Victoria Pineros, honestly believed that the decedent, Beatriz Diaz-Granados, had not written a new will that nullified the one that her mother – and the respondent’s mother – had prepared in 2000. Apparently, my client was mistaken, because – as you are no doubt aware – such a document exists. All that we wish to stipulate is that Ms. Pineros requests that you take into consideration the original 2000 will, and that my client has no desire to cause any harm to her brother, Mr. Diaz-Granados, and that she only asked to have half of the estate to protect Mr. Diaz-Granados’ interests.”
My attorney, who had never handled a probate case before, refuted that. He quietly and undramatically pointed out that my half-sister had not shown any interest in my welfare since our mother’s death almost a year before. And that was true; Vicky only went to the townhouse in East Wind Lake Village once after July 19, 2015, and that was to grab as many of Mom’s things as she could. She knew, from our interactions before and after that terrible day, that she was no longer welcome in my house, not after the way she had behaved during the five-year-long via crucis of our mother’s post-op struggles after she had back surgery in early June of 2015 and her decline into depression, dementia, and, finally, death.
I really don’t remember exactly what my attorney said; I was in a fugue of emotions that included anxiety over how the case would go, anger and revulsion at my half-sister, and a desire to weep over my mother. I’m sure that my face betrayed the hostility I felt – and still feel – toward Vicky; I’d tried to read the 2000 will (a copy had been provided to me by her attorney’s office with the notice that I had to go to a Lost or Destroyed Will hearing, per the rules of the probate process) and saw that she had asked Mom to not only leave her 50% of the townhouse – she had always asserted that her share was just 40% – but much of Mom’s valuables, including the Mitsubishi Mirage sedan she owned in 2000.
The attorneys did all of the talking, while Vicky and I did all of the glaring. I think that she was angry because some of my friends had helped me get a lawyer, and that not only was there a 2010 will properly made out, signed, notarized, and witnessed, but one of the two witnesses was sitting next to me, quietly waiting to be asked to speak. And, as I found out later from my attorney, Vicky must have been furious because her lawyer, the Charles Durning lookalike, had told her – once his office had been notified that Mom’s 2010 will had been recorded – that she should withdraw her petition because there was a 90% chance that the judge would rule against her.
“Look, Jack,” my lawyer quoted Vicky’s lawyer as saying when they were trying to agree on a rescheduled court date back in May. “I told her, ‘We aren’t going to win unless you want to accuse your brother of coercion. A will exists. It has your mother’s signature, two witnesses’ signatures, and a notary’s seal.’ She refused. I’m only going through with this case to prove to Vicky that she’s wrong.”
And as it turns out, Vicky did lose. I was too dazed and emotionally exhausted to hear what Judge Shapiro said, and it would take many long months – and a change of lawyers on my part – before the case was closed; Vicky eventually declined to appeal the court’s decision, probably because she wanted to avoid paying any more legal fees, and I prevailed. But I have not seen my half-sister since that hot July afternoon four years ago, nor did she ever return items that she removed from my house without permission in July of 2015.
 Per Florida’s probate law, a decedent’s will must be filed in court within a certain timeframe in order for it to be recorded with the Clerk of the Court. I was up to my eyebrows with a million details during the months leading up to Mom’s death and the weeks afterwards, plus I was emotionally exhausted, so I didn’t research the probate issue until it was much too late. Plus, Mom had asked me to hide the will from my half-sister so she couldn’t abscond with it and destroy it after Mom’s passing. This I did all too well, and it took a while before we found it and took it to the Dade County Courthouse and got it recorded there in February of 2016.