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Inheriting Injustice: The Wednesday Vigils

Gar Smith
Friday October 04, 2019 - 05:34:00 PM

If you've wondered about the vigil that appears in front of the Berkeley Probate Court on Wednesday mornings—covering the lawn in front of the old City Hall building with dozens protest signs—Maxine Ussery will be more than happy to fill you in. Ussery is a member of The Gospel Truth Probate Reform Movement and, if you ask, she'll hand you a thick, 26-page press packet filled with protest letters and press clippings.

Every Wednesday, a half-dozen protestors routinely gather on the MLK sidewalk to hand out literature about an ongoing injustice that has caused distress among the daughters and sons of the "Pearl Harbor Generation of African Americans." The phrase refers to the now-aging population of local residents who relocated to the Bay Area during WWII and bought homes for their families.

According to Ussery and other demonstrators, property that would be expected to be passed down to children and heirs has, all too frequently, wound up in the hands of the Alameda Country Probate Court. Or, more specifically, in the hands of the Probate Court's 20-plus attorneys—most of whom appear to be white and male.

The problem comes about whenever a dispute arises among the children of aging parents. A standard Will or Living Trust document is intended to smooth the path for the transfer of wealth and property but, if there is a challenge from one or more family members, the Probate Court can intervene and impose a "confiscation-of-inheritance" scenario.

In a 2016 document, Ussery complained: "We believe Alameda Country's Probate Courts have, over the last 50 years, legally robbed the African-American community of well over One Hundred Million Dollars."

Ussery and more than 45 other aggrieved members of the community maintain that the Probate Court system has profited from "pitting legally named beneficiaries/trustees against each other so that the Court can claim they have to administer the estate/trust because the legal beneficiaries cannot agree; And then getting approval to sell the assets of the estate/trust to satisfy some overwhelming, non-existing, tax debt or unforeseen expense that the estate/trust has occurred." 

This long-standing struggle has been the subject of numerous articles in The Oakland Post and Berkeleyside. Oakland Post editor Paul Cobb has also written a letter of concern to the Commission on Judicial Performance calling for an investigation and noting that, while the Probate Court serves an important function, "the practice of stripping people of their homes, estates and wealth for the sake of keeping the courts solvent has reached criminal and epidemic levels" leaving "thousands, if not millions of citizens . . . destitute after going through probate." 

Here's a 52-minute video featuring members of the GTPRM sharing their experiences: