You’ve probably heard that “He who represents himself has a fool for a client,” an adage dating back to the 17th century and commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln (but not by me – I first heard it on an episode of Frasier). Regardless of its provenance, it’s commonly understood to mean that if you choose to represent yourself in court, you’re taking a big risk.
But still, I can see the appeal. Lawyers can get expensive, after all. And perhaps you trust your own judgment better than that of some overly analytical stranger in a suit that you just met. Maybe that’s why our courts tend to guarantee to every litigant the opportunity to act as their own attorney as they proceed through the labyrinth that is American jurisprudence.
Unless, of course, you’ve been appointed the personal representative of an estate. Then, things get a bit more complicated. The Court of Appeal recently weighed in on precisely this complication in Estate of Sanchez (2023)___Cal.App.5th___.
The House Always Wins
The facts of Sanchez start simply enough: Leslie Peralta was appointed by the probate court to be the executor and personal representative of the estate of her late father, Frank Sanchez. A dispute arose between Leslie and Caroline, Frank’s surviving wife, as to ownership of Frank and Caroline’s home, located in a lush San Jose neighborhood where a 1200-square-foot home may sell for $1.25 million.
All of this is nothing unusual. Things got a bit less usual, however, when Leslie filed a partition action against Caroline in probate court on behalf of the estate, proceeding in propia persona – aka pro per, aka pro se, aka by herself, no lawyer involved.
The trial court didn’t go for it. Citing City of Downey v. Johnson and Hansen v. Hansen as precedent, the court held that a non-attorney estate representative bringing claims on behalf of an estate is improperly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. That is, while a non-lawyer litigant is free to represent him or herself in court, an estate representative is doing more than that – he or she is representing the beneficiaries of the estate as well. It is axiomatic that a litigant may not litigate on behalf of others without a license to practice law. Leslie’s claims were dismissed.
Double or Nothing
Leslie appealed, putting her in a rare-for-litigation “double or nothing” position – in order to prevail on her appeal, she had to successfully argue not only that she was permitted to represent the beneficiaries of the estate in trial court, but also that she was permitted to appeal on behalf of the beneficiaries. Failing on either would doom her case.
Leslie attempted to win both arguments by distinguishing the precedent – while prior case law held that estate representatives could not proceed in propia persona in civil proceedings, it didn’t say anything about proceedings in probate court.
Snake eyes. The Court of Appeal held that in either civil court or probate court, “the primary concern raised by a personal representative appearing in propia persona is that they are representing the interests of others and not just themselves.” While an exception might be made for an estate representative acting purely to fulfill her own duties, Leslie had brought claims against third parties for the benefit of others (i.e., the estate’s beneficiaries) as well as herself.
Estate of Sanchez effectively sets up the following two-level schema for estate representatives seeking to represent themselves in court:
CAN I REPRESENT MYSELF?
(A) Your claims are brought in furtherance of your duties >>> Yes, go right ahead.
(B) Your claims are brought to benefit other people, such as the estate’s beneficiaries >>> No, you need a lawyer.
With a potential third option, just for fun:
(C) You are a lawyer >>> Sure, do whatever you feel like.
This multi-tier analysis is bound to lead to some pretty thin hair-splitting down the road (how exactly can an estate representative act “in furtherance of her duties” if not to benefit the estate’s beneficiaries?), but this blog will not spend its time hashing out all of the possible permutations that will be occasioned by the Court of Appeal’s analysis.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the decision process of Estate of Sanchez’s pro se petitioner. Following the dismissal of her claims at the trial court level, the court gave Leslie 20 days to amend her complaint and retain counsel. She let those twenty days expire and filed her appeal. On one hand, it’s easy to sympathize: Leslie felt she was right, and was confident that her risk would pay off and she would be validated at the appellate level. But instead, she lost everything, even though she could have easily obviated her risk by hiring an attorney and moving on with her claims. Sometimes, it’s better to hedge your bets.