Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
by
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
by
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

by
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

by
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
by
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
by
Defendant, the beneficiary of a spendthrift trust created by his father, appealed the probate court's order directing the trustee to pay a portion of defendant's 2018 principal disbursement to four judgment creditors in partial satisfaction of their money judgment. The Court of Appeal affirmed and held that a judgment creditor may file a petition under Probate Code section 15301(b) before a debtor/trust beneficiary's trust distribution is "due and payable." The court also held that the probate court did not abuse its discretion by ordering the trustee to delay the payment of defendant's 2018 principal disbursement until after it issued its final ruling on the creditors' petitions. Finally, the court held that defendant's other arguments were unavailing, and because the trust was not a support trust, the personal receipt clause did not shield defendant from creditor claims. View "Blech v. Blech" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
by
The Court of Appeal affirmed the probate court's order denying plaintiffs' request, following the death of their daughter, that the remainder of their daughter's special needs trust be distributed to them rather than to the Department of Health Care Services as reimbursement for Medi-Cal payments for their daughter's medical care. The court held that the mandatory recovery rules for special needs trusts apply to the trust remainder; plaintiffs' interpretation of Probate Code section 3605 conflicts with federal law; the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' opinion letter supports the Department's position that section 3605 permits the Department to recover for the daughter's Medi-Cal expenses; public policy considerations weigh in favor of permitting reimbursement to the Department; and the trust itself requires reimbursement to the Department. The court also held that plaintiffs failed to show that the Department's claim impermissibly included services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Lanterman Act. View "Gonzalez v. City National Bank" on Justia Law

by
Edith Rogers appealed her removal as administrator of the estate of her grandfather Roscoe Sapp, Sr. (decedent), who died in 1994. Armuress Sapp and Brian Lincoln, two of decedent’s grandsons, separately petitioned to remove Rogers as administrator. The probate court found Rogers: (1) had failed to comply with the court’s 2001 instructions that she and her coadministrator (who died in 2003) sell the estate’s remaining real estate holdings and distribute the net proceeds to the beneficiaries of the decedent’s will; and (2) acted in bad faith toward the beneficiaries by trying to buy them out for much less than they would have received if she had timely sold the properties. The court therefore concluded Rogers had to be removed because she “mismanaged” the estate and was “incapable of properly executing the duties of the office” of administrator. The probate court withdrew letters of administration issued to Rogers and appointed Armuress as special administrator. In her briefs, Rogers challenged: (1) the 2001 order instructing the coadministrators to sell the estate’s real property; (2) the probate court’s 2016 denial of her petition for additional instructions; and (3) the 2017 judgment removing her as personal representative. The Court of Appeal determined the 2017 judgment was properly before it. Although the Court concluded the evidence did not support a finding that Rogers was incapable of executing the duties of administrator, the evidence supported her removal because she was not otherwise qualified to act as administrator, and she mismanaged the estate. Because the Court concluded Rogers did not demonstrate the probate court abused its discretion when it removed her, judgment was affirmed View "Estate of Sapp" on Justia Law

by
Almost twenty years after four dentists formed a partnership to acquire and maintain a dental office building, the then-partners amended their agreement to allow one of the partners, Dr. Richard Hallberg, to assign his partnership interest to his living trust, and to substitute the trustee (then Dr. Hallberg) as a general partner in place of Dr. Hallberg individually. Litigation ensued 15 years later after Dr. Hallberg's death over whether, despite the substitution, Dr. Hallberg was still a partner at the time of his death, which would trigger buyout provisions that applied in the event of a partner's death. While a trust cannot act in its own name and must always act through its trustee, a trust is a "person" that may associate in a partnership under the Uniform Partnership Act of 1994 (UPA), based on the plain language of the UPA's definition of "person." The clear statutory language is reinforced by other provisions of the statute, as well as by its legislative history. The Court of Appeal held that Dr. Hallberg was not a partner when he died. Rather, his trust, or the trustee of his trust, was the partner. The court saw no contradiction between the terms of the UPA and California trust law. To the extent Presta v. Tepper, (2009) 179 Cal.App.4th 909, 918, suggested otherwise, the court disagreed. Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court's judgment holding that the trust was not a separate legal entity. View "Han v. Hallberg" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff appealed the probate court's order striking her petition to enforce a no contest clause in a trust under the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure 425.16, and denying her motion to recover attorney fees. The Court of Appeal agreed with the probate court, and with a recent decision by Division Five of this district, that the anti-SLAPP statute applies to a petition such as plaintiff's seeking to enforce a no contest clause. However, the court held that plaintiff adequately demonstrated a likelihood of success under the second step of the anti-SLAPP procedure. In this case, defendant's judicial defense of the 2007 Amendment to the Trust that she procured through undue influence met the Trust's definition of a contest that triggered the no contest clause. Furthermore, under sections 21310 and 21311, that clause was enforceable against defendant. The court also held that plaintiff provided sufficient evidence that defendant lacked probable cause to defend the 2007 Amendment. The court held that the findings of the probate court concerning defendant's undue influence, which this court affirmed, provided a sufficient basis to conclude that plaintiff has shown a probability of success on her No Contest Petition. Finally, the court held that plaintiff had the contractual right to seek reimbursement of her attorney fees incurred in resisting defendant's appeal of the probate court's ruling invalidating the 2007 Amendment. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded. View "Key v. Tyler" on Justia Law