In July, 82-year-old lawyer Mary Pat Toups was planning ahead.
She wanted me to be ready in August to tell the public about a new law that would make it easier for Californians to leave their homes to their heirs. The governor hadn't even gotten the measure, but Toups was lining up press to explain it.
The bill was sitting in a Senate committee, and Toups was poised to make her regular commute from Laguna Woods to Sacramento to testify. Then she'd celebrate.
Turns out, Toups was optimistic.
This past week, as many noble bills died quiet deaths in Sacramento, you could say AB 724 was murdered in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Cancel the party. California still does not allow a revocable transfer-on-death deed. The measure was killed, Toups says, by opposition from trust and probate lawyers.
But here's where Toups reveals the depth of her optimism: At her age, she still counts on seeing the measure become law.
So, yes, this is about a less expensive way to bequeath your house – but it's also about a one-woman quest to make it happen.
When we met, Toups asked about my children and I asked about a revocable transfer-on-death deed. Topics of children and inheritance go together.
Toups' crusade is impressive not only for her tenacity, but also for the political savvy she's acquired along the way.
Toups is a little old lady with her hair in a bun wearing comfortable shoes, but she isn't tilting at windmills. As a semi-retired lawyer she saw a need several years ago and morphed into a bulldog. She's sunk her teeth into this issue.
"When I'm right and everybody else is wrong, I just can't let go."
The issue is what happens to your house after you die.
Maybe you want to will it to your housemate or your children. You can name them beneficiary, but unless you pay a lawyer to establish a trust, the property must go through long and expensive probate.
Toups started thinking about this several years ago, when she was working as a volunteer with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, holding office hours at senior centers.
To avoid legal fees and probate, elderly homeowners sometimes use do-it-yourself options like a quitclaim or joint tenancy deeds. They come to Toups when it backfires, which happens all too often.
Maybe the son decided to sell the house out from under the mother. Maybe a daughter went into debt and her creditor filed a lien against her father's property.
"I weep for these people. They tell me these stories and there is nothing I can do," Toups says.
"I got tired of telling people: 'I cannot help you'."
A new way to leave property to loved ones — a revocable transfer-on-death (R-TOD) deed — could help.
It would allow the homeowner to own his or her home until death, when it would automatically transfer title to the beneficiary.
It also would be an inexpensive, one-page form that would require no lawyer or probate. Meantime, it would be easy to alter if circumstances change, and it would thwart the sort of trickery that happens when the elderly are conned into signing away their homes. A R-TOD deed could become a timely matter of public record.
Toups decided she wanted California to allow this.
And that desire began her political education as a self-funded activist. If she started as a country mouse in Sacramento she learned how to lobby the system like a city girl.
Don't get Toups started — because she's hard to stop.
Irvine Assembly member Chuck DeVore calls her "a force of nature." But she is less like a tornado and more like a slow, steady and relentless drip.
At her request, the R-TOD deed was the first bill DeVore sponsored as a new Assembly member in 2005. This year, as his last term in office ends, it was one of his last.
When they started, seven states had similar measures. Now a R-TOD deed is available in 13 other states.
DeVore's first effort was deflected, not defeated. A state commission agreed to study the idea, and Toups attended every commission meeting for 18 months until it recommended legislation.
Twice, the Assembly unanimously passed subsequent bills.
But each time the idea was killed in Senate committee, where DeVore blames routine jousting between special interests.
"People who stand to make or lose money fight each other. In this case, no one stands to make money if it passes... The only folks we had on our side were people with moral authority."
That would be Toups – along with organizations such as the California AARP, the Conference of California Bar Associations and the California Commission on Aging.
DeVore notes that Toups became an effective citizen lobbyist. Not surprising for a woman who went to law school in her 40s.
Just listening is exhausting as she describes her efforts at building alliances, testifying at hearings, and organizing support. She spends her own time and money to do it.
Toups, a child of the Depression, boasts that her old furniture and clothes are just fine. Yet she cheerfully admits she's spending the inheritance that would have gone to her four children and six grandchildren.
Angels tickets and lobbying the state legislature are her only luxuries.
It bums her out that six senators in a committee can kill a bill the entire 80-member Assembly approved. Those Assembly votes inspire her to work with the Bar Association of San Francisco on next year's measure.
"It will pass," she says. "I might have to live to be 100."
Watch out: Mary Pat Toups is planning ahead.
For information visit: www.Transfer-on-Death-Deeds.com.