Articles Posted in Breach of Trust

In California, over the years, I have handled many cases involving disputes between family members over the estates of a deceased relative. Brothers against sisters, sisters against brothers, uncles against nieces, nephews and others.  Some cases go to trial; other cases settle.  In all events, however, someone is going to be disappointed with the outcome, which disappointment can occur even if they prevail.

If you have been disinherited, you believe that the instrument that disinherited you was obtained by undue influence or when your deceased loved one (or relative) was incompetent, your recourse is the courts.  Let’s say that you succeed in getting the offending instrument (a will or a trust) thrown out.  What then?

The court may say that if there is no other earlier instrument, the estate will go by intestacy (as if the decedent died without a will) and it will then be divided among the heirs of the decedent.  However, if there is an earlier instrument (perhaps a will) in which you have also been disinherited, then prevailing in the trust contest only sets you up for the next contest, which is to challenge the will (presumably on the same grounds as you challenged the trust).

I have represented three sisters against their brother over their mother’s will.

I’ve represented a child who was adopted and thought she had a great relationship with her presumed half-sister and then found out the sister wanted all of the deceased father’s estate. We had to find tissue and get DNA testing to resolve that matter despite all of the family photographs.

I’ve represented cousins against a decedent’s lover, who got the decedent to leave his entire multi-million dollar estate to the lover. We showed up for trial at 1PM. The judge sent us to discuss settlement … three different times I announced that I would proceed with the trial because there could be no settlement, and three different times the other side blinked. We finally settled at 7:30 PM (kudos to the judge and his staff for staying so late).

A typical case will involve a family member contacting me to complain about the dispositions in a will or trust of a deceased relative, with allegations that another family member or a caregiver “got” to the deceased relative to unduly benefit themselves at the expense of the other family members.

To properly analyze the case, I obtain copies of all prior testamentary documents (to determine if the terms are at variance with the current documents, and how great a variance there is).

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California defines undue influence in the Civil Code. Specifically, Civil Code Section 1575 states:

“Undue influence consists:

1. In the use, by one in whom a confidence is reposed by another, or who holds a real or apparent authority over him, of such confidence or authority for the purpose of obtaining an unfair advantage over him;

Trust contests are very similar to will contests with similar allegations of incompetency and/or undue influence. The difference is that there may be only a very short time to decide if you are going to file a contest.

There is a procedure in the Probate Code (§16061.7) where the trustee gives notice to all beneficiaries that the trust has become irrevocable and a copy of the trust is provided; if that procedure is properly followed, then a contestant has only 4 months in which to bring a trust contest.

If the contestant waits too long, or there is a no contest clause, then they may be out of luck. That’s not to say that if you can prove the entire trust is invalid (and therefore the Probate Code §16061.7 notice is invalid) you can’t win; you might. It just makes a hard job harder.

What if, despite everyone’s good intentions, there is conflict after the death?

What if an heir or beneficiary or someone who thinks that they should have been made an heir or beneficiary complains?

What if a trustee never accounts to the beneficiaries and enriches himself at the expense of the others?

When the father of my beneficiary clients, as trustee of the living trust created for them by their grandparents, finally complied with the court’s order to submit an accounting, it told a story of trustee misdeeds, malfeasance and breach of fiduciary duty.

In California, a trustee has various duties as set forth in California Probate Code §§16000 et seq., known as the Trust Law. Among them is the duty to put the interests of the individual beneficiaries before his own (California Probate Code §16002) In addition, a trustee has a duty to follow the instructions of the trust concerning distributions (California Probate Code §16000). In an accounting the trustee, among the other items set forth in California Probate Code §16063, is required to list, in detail, on separate schedules, the assets of the trust, the income of the trust, the gains and losses from the sale of trust assets, the expenses of the trust, distributions from the trust and property on hand as of the date of the accounting. These were the schedules that I reviewed on behalf of my clients.

While I am licensed as a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) in addition to being an attorney, I practice law. That does not, however, mean that I turn my back on my skills as a CPA. To the contrary, I find those skills very useful in most of the areas of law that I practice in, including business, probates and trusts.

In my last post, I described the living trust situation wherein my beneficiary clients believed that their father, trustee of the living trusts established by their grandparents for their benefit, was wrongfully withholding their funds, breaching his fiduciary duty as a trustee. Here is what I did as an advocate and attorney to protect their interests.

I should point out that California Probate Code §17200(b)(7) permits a living trust beneficiary to seek a court order requiring the trustee to report and account for his activities with the trust funds. Knowing this, I wrote a demand letter to the trustee (my clients’ father) informing him that I represented his children, that I had read the living trust, that the living trust required distribution to each child at age 21, and that he, as the trustee, had breached his fiduciary duty, as a trustee, to account to his children (the beneficiaries) and to distribute the funds. I further informed him that I would file a petition in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County (where the living trust was located and domiciled) to compel an accounting and distribution if my clients’ demands were not met.

The trustee’s initial response to my clients’ demands was to delay and promise that an accounting would be forthcoming.

In my Orange County, California estate planning practice, I am constantly amazed at the greed shown by family members towards each other. Although I have been in practicing thirty years now with substantial experience in trust, probate and estate litigation, I have seen no change in the willingness of one or more family members to short-change another family member.

Not too long ago I was approached by a grandchild of deceased grandparents. This grandchild had three siblings. All of them were told that when their grandparents died, the living trust that had been established for them by the grandparents would be held by their father, as trustee, for their benefit, until each grandchild turned 21 years old. At that time, the father was to distribute that grandchild’s share of the living trust.

At the time that I was retained, all of the siblings had attained age 21 with oldest being age 28. The father had never rendered an accounting (a report of the assets that he started with, the income that he received, the expenses that he incurred, and the property that was on hand) to his children to show what he had done with their trust funds. Instead, he had repeatedly made promises that an accounting would be prepared shortly or that the income and expense information was at the accountant’s waiting to be assembled into an accounting. The children began to suspect that their father was withholding their money and using it for himself, which is considered, in California, a breach of fiduciary duty by the trustee. I was asked to do something about this.