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).

1. Each US citizen has a lifetime exclusion amount from estate taxes of $5,340,000 (this amount adjusts for inflation each year).

2. There is an unlimited marital deduction for gifts from a deceased spouse to a surviving spouse who is a citizen.

3. The two concepts at play at the threshold are whether to simply leave everything to the surviving spouse and take advantage of the unlimited marital deduction (therefore no tax on the first death) which may result in a tax at the second death (while the unused portion of a decedent spouse’s lifetime exclusion may be “ported” over to the surviving spouse, the total assets on the second death may still exceed the surviving spouse’s lifetime exclusion amount). or 4. Alternatively, fund a bypass trust to the maximum amount of the lifetime exclusion of $5,340,000…. This will not be taxed at the first death and will “bypass” the estate of the survivor (i.e. not be subject to tax at the survivor’s death; and if the survivor’s estate is $5,340,000 it will not be taxed on the survivor’s death).

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;

There are times when a will is challenged in California. There are many reason why this happens and the law sets forth the procedures to follow in making a challenge. Some reasons a will may be challenged include:

The will is fraudulent.

The will wasn’t properly executed.

thumbnail%20inland%20empire.jpgLytton Williams Messina & Hankin LLP (the “Firm”) maintain close relationships with their clients and continue to make personalized service their number one priority. Partners Lytton Willaims and Messina were all formerly partners in the Century city law firm of Kelly Lytton & Williams. Prior to joining Kelly Lytton, Sheldon Lytton and Richard Williams, each with more than 30 years of legal experience practiced at O’Melveny & Myers and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, respectively, and were then partners in Finely Kumble Wagner Heine Underberg & Manley, one of the largest national law firms in the United States. John Messina, head of the Firm’s Temecula Valley Office, is a licensed real estate broker and was the head of a mortgage banking firm in the San Gabriel Valley before turning to the law. Ted Hankin, an attorney and CPA, heads the Firm’s Newport Beach Office and was formerly the Division Chair of the Estates, Probate and Trust Division of Alvarado Smith APC. Henry Holguin, of Counsel to the Firm, was formerly a name partner in Miller & Holguin, and is one of California’s most noted health care attorneys; he currently serves as the general counsel of AltaMed, the largest Federally qualified Community Health Center in the United States.

The Firm’s Practice Areas Include:

1. General Business Litigation and Resolution of Disputes, including Representation of Public Agencies, and Representation of Clients before Federal, State and Local Government Agencies.

You have been successful and obtained a California judgment against your adversary. However, you have been unsuccessful in collecting on it. Should you be concerned about the passage of time? After all, interest on judgments is generally 10% annually in California.

The answer is, it depends. If you have a civil judgment, it must be renewed through the courts every ten years. If not, it will become unenforceable (California Code of Civil Procedure Section 683.020). Renewal is accomplished by submitting an application for renewal to the court prior to the expiration of the ten year period (California Code of Civil Procedure Section 683.120).

However, if you have a family law judgment (or order), it never expires (California Family Code Section 291). This is a very useful quality, if you should find, for example, that your ex-spouse’s parent has died and that ex-spouse is about to come into enough money to satisfy that more than 10 year old judgment or order……

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.

Suppose a will is being offered for probate (the process by which the decedent’s debts are paid and the assets distributed) and someone thinks (a) the writer of the will was mentally incompetent when they wrote it or (b) the writer of the will was being unduly influenced at the time (in other words, without the influence, the will would have been written differently).

Their best option is to file a will contest to try and prove their theories as to why the will should not be subject to probate. They might have an earlier will that benefits them and they want to offer that document for probate.

All of the above amounts to a will contest which boils down to litigation in the probate court. I’ve represented both sides. Sometimes it is a niece against an uncle, three sisters against a brother, brother against brother.

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?