Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
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Probate Code section 856 clearly and unambiguously grants the probate court the power not only to order a conveyance or transfer to the person entitled to the property in question, but also to grant other appropriate relief. In this consolidated probate matter involving Stacey Carlson and Gabriel Ashlock, Stacey challenged a judgment entered in a bifurcated proceeding on issues of damages and remedies. In the published portion of the opinion, the Court of Appeal applied de novo review and held that the proper interpretation of section 859 is reflected in Estate of Kraus, supra, 184 Cal.App.4th 103, and not Conservatorship of Ribal, (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 519. The court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Estate of Ashlock" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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After the probate court found that clear and convincing evidence supported equitable reformation of the decedent's will to provide for testamentary control and disposition of her separate property only, the probate court denied requests by the decedent's son, under Family Code section 1101, for a community property award against the decedent's husband and ordered the son to reimburse the husband for attorney fees incurred to expunge the lis pendens on one of the husband's properties. The Court of Appeal dismissed the son's appeal from the attorney fees award, holding that the order granting those fees was nonappealable. The court affirmed in all other respects, holding that substantial evidence supported the probate court's findings of the decedent's intent and the mistake in drafting the pour-over will; the probate court did not abuse its discretion in reforming the pour-over will; the son lacked standing to pursue his section 1101 claims because he is not the executor/personal representative named in the pour-over will and he has waived any challenge to the probate court's ruling on standing; and, in any event, substantial evidence supported the probate court's finding that the withdrawal of one-half of the monies on deposit in the joint accounts did not cause a detrimental impact. View "Wilkin v. Nelson" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Mark’s grandfather, McKie, created a trust in his will for the benefit of his wife, Yvonne. during her life and granted her a testamentary power of appointment over the remainder. If Yvonne did not exercise her appointment power, McKie’s children from a prior marriage and Yvonne’s son from a prior marriage would each take a one-quarter share of the remainder; if a child did not survive Yvonne, that child’s surviving issue would take that child’s share. The issue of each of the children had a contingent remainder interest in the trust, subject to divestment by Yvonne’s exercise of her appointment power. McKie died in 1988. His adult children settled claims against the estate unrelated to the trust, disclaiming any interest in the trust. In 1991, the probate court issued a distribution decree, specifying that the trust's remainder was to be distributed solely to Yvonne’s son or his issue. McKie’s grandchildren were not given notice; the Decree eliminated their contingent interests. Yvonne died without having exercised her power of appointment. Mark’s father predeceased Yvonne. Mark unsuccessfully petitioned to be recognized as a trust beneficiary under the will's default distribution provision. The court of appeal reversed. Mark had a property interest in the trust in 1991 and the Decree adversely affected his interest. Mark’s existence and address were reasonably ascertainable; due process required that Mark be given notice of the proceeding that resulted in the Decree and an opportunity to object. View "Roth v. Jelley" on Justia Law

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Sixty-nine year old Pamelia Powell had been prescribed multiple central nervous system depressants, with additive effects. In April 2016 and again in May 2016, she had to be hospitalized for overdoses. In between the two hospital stays, petitioner Marilyn Zemek, who was already Powell’s friend, agreed to become her paid caretaker. She acknowledged at the time that Powell needed “constant companionship,” including help with “properly taking her medication.” Later in May 2016, petitioner took Powell to petitioner’s former attorney. He prepared new estate planning documents for Powell that left everything to petitioner. In June 2016, petitioner left Powell home alone for at least two days and perhaps as much as four days. During that time, Powell died of an overdose of her prescription medications. After Powell’s death, petitioner bought items using Powell’s credit card and emptied Powell’s bank accounts. Based on this evidence, a magistrate held petitioner to answer for crimes including murder, elder abuse, and grand theft. The trial court denied petitioner’s motion to set aside the information. Petitioner appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing there was insufficient evidence: (1) of malice; (2) that she was the legal cause of Powell’s death; and (3) that the money she took did not belong to her. The Court rejected these contentions and affirmed the magistrate court’s decision. View "Zemek v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the probate court's order granting a petition for instructions allowing the trustee to treat lifetime gifts to trust beneficiaries as advances on their inheritances. The court held that Probate Code section 21135, subdivision (a)(2) has been satisfied where the trial court could reasonably conclude that the Permanent Record was sufficient to satisfy the writing requirement; parole evidence was properly admitted to interpret the writing; subdivision (a)(3) has been satisfied where the trial court could reasonably conclude the emails constitute a written acknowledgement that the distributions were advancements; and the trial court properly found a disparity in payments between the parties. View "Sachs v. Sachs" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Ralph Placencia died, leaving behind, among other things, a will, a trust, and a joint bank account with an express right of survivorship in favor of one of his daughters, appellant Lisa Strazicich. Ralph left clear statements in his will that he did not want Lisa to have the right of survivorship; he wanted the proceeds of the account to go to his trust so it could benefit all three of his daughters. After his death, Lisa refused to relinquish the funds. Lisa and respondent Stephanie Placencia, another of Ralph’s daughters, both of whom were cotrustees of Ralph’s trust, filed petitions in the probate court to determine the parties’ respective rights. Once established, the terms of a multi-party account” could only be changed by filing the applicable paperwork with the financial institution. The Court of Appeal surmised Ralph clearly expressed the intent to negate survivorship, but the form of the account included a right of survivorship, and Ralph did not use one of the methods listed in Probate Code section 5303 to change the terms of the account. The Court of Appeal recognized the explicit distinction drawn in the the California Multiple-Party Accounts Law (CAMPAL) between the actual ownership of the beneficial interests in the account, and the express terms of the account: the distinction allowed the court to honor the clear intent of the person who established the account while at the same time offer protection to the financial institution which held the account. The Court held that the financial institution was correct to pay the funds to Lisa pursuant to the express terms of the account, but the beneficial owner of the funds was Ralph’s estate. Furthermore, the Court concluded the probate court properly relied on Ralph’s will as evidence of his intent, notwithstanding section 5302(e), which provided that a right of survivorship “cannot be changed by will. ... The court may still look to the will as an expression of intent to negate survivorship." Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal reversed on two issues: (1) the funds in the bank account belonged to Ralph’s estate, which had not been subject to a probate proceeding - the probate court erred in awarding those funds directly to the trust in the absence of a proceeding; and (2) in light of that reversal, the matter was remanded for a reassessment of Stephanie’s attorney fees. View "Placencia v. Strazicich" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Bryan was arrested for resisting arrest after deputies responded to a woman’s call that he had chased her. The court determined that Bryan was not competent to stand trial. He was taken to Napa State Hospital. After treating Bryan for two years, the hospital reported that it was unlikely he would soon regain competency. The public guardian filed a conservatorship petition supported by the report of a clinical psychologist who evaluated Bryan and concluded that he was gravely disabled by schizophrenia. Bryan’s public defender requested a trial. The court suggested scheduling the trial for January 28, 2019. Bryan’s attorney agreed. The parties stipulated that Bryan would appear by videoconference because of health issues. Trial began on January 28; county counsel called Bryan as a witness with no objection from Bryan’s attorney. The clinical psychologist whose report was submitted with the petition testified, as did Bryan’s temporary conservator. The court concluded that the public guardian had established beyond a reasonable doubt that Bryan was gravely disabled and was currently unable to provide for food, clothing, or shelter; appointed the public guardian as the conservator for one year; and imposed legal disabilities on him under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting arguments that the commitment term must be shortened because the trial court unlawfully continued the starting date of his trial and that Bryan had an equal protection right to refuse to testify at his trial. View "Conservatorship of Bryan S." on Justia Law

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Petitioner-appellant Patricia Everett filed a creditor’s claim against the estate of Richard Edison Holdaway, seeking repayment of sums she contended the decedent owed her. When filed, the claim was timely, and tolled the statute of limitations against a decedent. The decedent’s son, defendant-respondent Richard Everett Holdaway, as personal representative of the estate, rejected Everett’s claim, leading to Everett suing for payment. After five continuances on her attempts to collect, the trial court dismissed Everett’s claim for failure to prosecute. Everett filed a competing petition for probate under the previous case number as the one that had been dismissed; she contended the decedent died intestate and left all property to a family trust. Holdaway produced a will, the court appointed him personal representative, and dismissed Everett’s competing petition. Then Holdaway rejected Everett’s creditor’s claim. On appeal, Everett challenged the trial court’s order sustaining without leave to amend Holdaway’s demurrer to her complaint on the ground the claim was barred by Code of Civil Procedure section 366.2. In a matter of first impression, the Court of Appeal determined dismissal of a creditor’s petition to be appointed as representative of the estate that allegedly owed her money did not toll the statute of limitations triggered by her claim. The Court reversed and remanded the case for entry of an order sustaining the demurrer with leave to amend. View "Estate of Holdaway" on Justia Law

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In 1986, Robert Levin established a revocable trust, and was thereafter amended several times: in 1993, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2012. After Robert passed away in 2015, litigation erupted, principally over the 2008 and 2012 amendments. Elizabeth Levin, Robert’s daughter from a prior marriage, sued Robert’s widow, Debra Winston-Levin, on multiple grounds which, by the time the matter went to trial, had devolved into causes of action for an order compelling the return of certain Levin Trust property pursuant to Probate Code section 850, and for double damages pursuant to Probate Code section 859. With regard to the 2012 amendment, the trial court found a presumption of undue influence went unrebutted by Debra. As a result, the court voided the entire 2012 amendment and ordered Debra to return property she had obtained pursuant to the 2012 amendment and a related deed. Elizabeth appealed, contending the court erred in three ways: (1) the court’s finding of undue influence compelled a finding that Debra was liable for financial abuse of an elder, which, in turn, compelled an award of double damages under Probate Code section 859; (2) the evidence compelled a finding that undue influence tainted the 2008 amendment; and (3) the court erred in voiding the entire 2012 amendment rather than carving out only those portions that benefited Debra. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court correctly interpreted section 859; the court’s ruling was supported by substantial evidence; and a reasonable inference from the cumulative changes in the amendment were that they were intended to be intertwined, such that voiding only those portions benefiting Debra would not effectuate Robert’s intent. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. View "Levin v. Winston-Levin" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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At issue before the Court of Appeals was whether James Robert Anderson, settlor and trustee of the James Robert Anderson Revocable Trust (the trust), validly amended the trust when he made handwritten interlineations to one of the operative trust documents, specifically the First Amendment to the trust (First Amendment), making Grey Dey a beneficiary. After making the interlineations, Anderson sent both the original trust instrument and the interlineated First Amendment to his attorney to have the new disposition of his trust estate formalized in a second amendment to the trust. Anderson died before the formal amendment was prepared for his signature. Margaret Pena, successor trustee, petitioned the trial court for instructions as to the validity of the interlineations. She moved for summary judgment, asserting the interlineations did not amount to a valid amendment to the trust as a matter of law. The trial court granted the motion and entered judgment in Pena’s favor. Dey appealed, but the Court of Appeal concurred with the trial court: the interlineations did not validly amend the trust because the trust specifically requires amendments “be made by written instrument signed by the settlor and delivered to the trustee. … While the law considers the interlineations a separate written instrument, and while there can be no doubt Anderson delivered them to himself as trustee, he did not sign them.” While there was no dispute in this case that Anderson intended Dey to receive a portion of his trust estate, there was also no genuine dispute that Anderson intended to sign this and other changes to his trust when formalized by his attorney. Unfortunately, he died before that could be accomplished. View "Pena v. Dey" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates