- Oliver Parini
- Byron Batres
In May of last year, Byron Batres saw a surge in business at his company, EZ-Probate. Coronavirus-related deaths across the nation had spiked within the previous month. People tasked with settling the estates of those who died, a legal process called probate, flooded his company's website to use its system for completing the required documents more cheaply than they could by hiring an attorney.
To date, May 2020 remains EZ-Probate's best sales month, said Batres, the company's founder and CEO. It contributed to $700,000 in annual revenue last year, a nearly threefold increase from $189,000 in 2019.
That figure capped a trajectory of steady growth since Batres started the company in 2017 as a "side gig" while he worked as a certified financial planner. EZ-Probate handled about 30 cases that first year and has since climbed to 1,000 in 2020. The company can do business in every state and has had customers from as far away as New Zealand, Australia and the Virgin Islands.
"I wanted to have a business that made something hard easier," Batres said. "And I wanted to have a business that made something expensive less expensive."
Batres now runs the company full time and worked solo until last April, when he began hiring the first of ultimately 10 employees, including a chief operating officer and chief marketing officer. Six of them work at safely distanced desks in a glass-walled office at the new Hula business incubator on the Burlington waterfront, while others work remotely.
EZ-Probate has found its niche by offering an alternative to a legal system that charges hundreds of dollars an hour, and sometimes tens of thousands total, to handle the transfer of assets after a death.
When someone dies, a person close to the deceased acts as the executor, representative or administrator of the estate to carry out the dictates of the will. That person must file reams of paperwork for the court. The estate can cover any legal fees, but the assets are often tied up in property that has to be vacated or sold. And outstanding debts can sometimes wipe out what little money an estate has, leaving families to pay the attorney's bill.
"Now imagine you're just a regular working person who can barely make it; you're paycheck to paycheck," Batres said. "Our mission is to provide access to legal services to those who need it, regardless of their economic or social or ethnic kind of background."
EZ-Probate's fees start at $600 for a basic do-it-yourself service that gives users automated software to complete the necessary forms, just as they'd use TurboTax to submit their annual returns without hiring an accountant.
Batres, 45, was born in Guatemala and moved with his parents to the Philadelphia area when he was 5. All his life, he'd planned to become a doctor, but he changed his mind in college and ended up graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1998 with a degree in physiology and a minor in business.
Batres moved to Vermont as a pharmaceutical salesman. Later, he became a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley and was certified as a financial planner in 2003. At one point, he and his wife owned the Burlington outdoor equipment store Climb High, which went out of business in 2011.
Batres' own frustration with the probate process prompted him to start the company. In 2012, his wife's grandmother died, and he became executor of her estate. Certain financial provisions of the will created conflict with Batres' father-in-law, leading to an intensely stressful experience that the family's well-paid attorney could have helped them minimize, he said.
"I started this company out of spite," Batres said, only half joking. "I just think there's a lot of injustice in what I call 'the business of law.'"
Probate often involves disputes between family members. That's why EZ-Probate offers Concierge service, a step up from the basic level, for $1,250. "We do more," Batres said. "We e-file. We notify the family. We have unlimited phone calls. I'll talk to your crazy brother, you know, if you don't want to."
Suzanne Dunning, a California resident, found EZ-Probate in 2019 after her father died in Vermont and she needed to oversee his will. When she called the company with paperwork questions, Batres eased her mind — a contrast to her complicated, stressful and expensive experience with the lawyer who handled the sale of her dad's farm, she said.
"He's really doing a good thing by handing people back their power," Dunning said of Batres. "This doesn't have to be scary. It doesn't have to be overwhelming."
Not surprisingly, the legal community has responded less enthusiastically to EZ-Probate. The company has received "inquiries" — from state bar associations and attorneys general acting on lawyers' complaints — about whether it is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, said David Thelander, EZ-Probate's attorney. The State Bar of California, for example, sent Batres a cease and desist letter last September.
Thelander declined to specify the number of inquiries or the states where they originated, but he said the company has responded to every request for information. "Any and all matters have been resolved," he said.
EZ-Probate cannot offer its do-it-yourself option in five states — Texas, Florida, Iowa, Missouri and Mississippi — that require an attorney to handle probate in court, but those states have exceptions for simpler cases involving limited assets or a single heir.
Convincing people to use an online service instead of an attorney remains a hurdle, Batres said. Some people need legal advice or prefer to work with a lawyer. Last October, Batres partnered with a team of attorneys for such situations.
For its Attorney Plan, EZ-Probate charges customers a $5,000 flat fee and pays the attorney $1,500 for the first 90 minutes of work — enough time for most probate cases — and an hourly rate afterward. The attorney option brings in extra revenue while boosting interest in the company's other service plans.
"It kind of gives us that Good Housekeeping stamp of approval," Batres said.
So the guy who started EZ-Probate wanting to "crush" the legal establishment no longer hopes to beat 'em. He's going to join 'em.Correction, March 31, 2021: A previous version of this story misidentified Batres' college degree.