Michigan has been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and hospitals have been overwhelmed. In order to stem the tide of cases, most Michiganders have been following recommendations for physical distancing and staying at home as much as possible except for essential business outside the home. Some errands are obviously non-essential, and some are clearly critical. But what about things like court cases, that are clearly important, but perhaps not essential?
At Suzanne R. Fanning, PLLC, we have become aware of a lot of concern about probate matters. People are justifiably worried about leaving their homes, but also concerned about what will happen if they fail to file probate court documents by the date originally given. Fortunately, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office has provided some clear guidance regarding probate filing deadlines in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
The first two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the state were identified on March 10, 2020. As of this writing, there have been nearly 38,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan, and over 1000 in Washtenaw County alone. By the time you read this article, that number will doubtless be higher.
On March 10, Governor Whitmer declared, through Executive Order 2020-4, a state of emergency in Michigan. On April 1, after three weeks of devastation from the virus, she issued Executive Order 2020-33. That order, which declared both a state of emergency and a state of disaster across the state, expanded on Executive Order 2020-4.
These orders were issued under the Michigan Constitution, the Emergency Management Act, and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945. The Emergency Management Act gives the governor broad powers to address dangers to the state. The Emergency Powers of the Governor Act grants the governor the ability, after declaring a state of emergency, to put in place reasonable orders, rules and regulations to protect life and property within Michigan during the state of emergency.
Back in March, Michigan Supreme Court Administrative Order 2020-3 stated that days that fell within a declared state of emergency must not be counted when computing filing deadlines for Michigan civil and probate cases. (Previous Administrative Orders restricted trial court operations throughout Michigan and made it easier to adjourn court cases.) On April 22, Governor Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-58, which follows Administrative Order 2020-3.
Executive Order 2020-58 is intended to protect the public and court staff from the spread of the coronavirus, while maintaining the necessary administration of justice. It applies to civil cases, such as disputes between businesses or people (including personal injury and divorce). It also applies to probate cases, which is what most of our clients have been concerned about. Probate cases may simply involve court oversight of a deceased person’s estate, or may involve litigation of a dispute involving an estate.
The order specifically suspends any deadlines that apply to starting a civil or probate action. These include the deadline for filing documents to begin a case (the complaint) as well as any notices required by law or other prerequisites to starting a civil or probate case. The suspension is effective as of March 10, and deadlines are paused until the states of emergency and disaster end.
That said, nothing in the order prevents a person from taking the steps necessary to begin a civil or probate case if they wish to. The order also does not do away with any time period that ordinarily would have to elapse before a certain court proceeding would be allowed to start.
Executive Order 2020-58 does not change the court’s power to hear a motion in an active case, or to hear and resolve an emergency matter that might arise in a case. The order also does not affect the court’s power to extend deadlines or put in place policies needed to ensure that justice is done.
To quickly sum up the effect of Executive Order 2020-58:
You do not have to make a choice between risking your health and missing an important probate court deadline. If you are currently the personal representative of a Michigan probate estate, you should contact the probate attorney assisting you on the case with any questions.
If you need to begin a probate matter, or are an heir or beneficiary who is concerned about what COVID-19 means for a Michigan probate case that affects you, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.