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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson & Davidson. I want to talk to you about the upside and the downside of contingency fee agreements.  We’ve got several videos that we put out on contingency fee agreements because we want people to better understand how they can use them in a trust or will contest case in California.

The biggest upside to a contingency fee agreement is you don’t have to pay any cash to a lawyer to take your case – as long as that lawyer will take it on a contingency fee basis.

The downside is that you have to pay a high percentage, generally 40% in the state of California, to that attorney to take the case on.  That’s a negotiable – the contingency fees are negotiable in California and so you can ask your lawyer if they would take less than that, if they would maybe do a stair-step agreement on a contingency fee agreement.  There’s all kinds of hybrids out there.  But, generally speaking, you’re going to pay more on a contingency fee agreement, and that is a bit of a downside.

On the other hand, if nobody would take your case, because you don’t have money to pay them for an hourly fee, then the contingency fee is probably worth it at the end of the day, because there is a recovery and there is money that comes back to you.

Another upside of the contingency fee agreement is a trust contest with difficult facts, facts that may not win the case.  In that case, if an attorney’s willing to take on that risk, that it’s not the best case in the world.  Let’s say the attorney works that case for two years and loses that case at the time of trial.  This is where the biggest upside to the contingency fee agreement comes in – and that is, you owe that lawyer zero dollars for that lawyer’s two years of work in the case.  You probably also owe that lawyer zero for the costs of the case.  That’s the point of taking a contingency fee agreement.  The lawyer takes on the costs and if they’re not successfully will have to eat those costs and you owe the lawyer nothing if the case loses.

Of course, if the case wins, then you would owe the percentage that you agreed to pay the lawyer on any recovery to you.

The other issue that I personally like in a contingency fee agreement is that I get to run the case the way that I like to run the case.  That is, if I need to do subpoenas to ten different banking institutions, financial institutions. If I need to get four or five medical providers, get subpoenas out to four or five medical providers.  If I need to get subpoenas out to several drafting attorneys, I don’t have to worry about the cost so much as I would on an hourly case.  In an hourly fee arrangement, I would be calling the client and the client would have to consider if the costs were worth it in pursuing the ends of what we’re trying to do in getting documents, for example.

I like contingency fee agreements because it allows me, the lawyer, to spend the money how I see fit, how I think will improve the case, and not have to worry that the client’s going to become shy about how much we’re spending in costs on the case as we move the case forward.

Overall, contingency fee agreements have their place.  They’re not right for everybody.  Sometimes, if you have money to pay on an hourly basis, you’re going to be better off doing that.  But, for those individuals who don’t have the ability to pay hourly, contingency fee agreements are a nice tool available for you to enter into an agreement with a lawyer so that lawyer can fully and effectively represent you in an trust or will contest.

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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson & Davidson.  I want to talk to you about contingency fees, and how they can give access to some beneficiaries who don’t have the ability to pay lawyers on an hourly basis.  The traditional way that many people hire lawyers is they give that lawyer a retainer (for example, $10,000-$20,000 retainers are common), and then the lawyer bills against that retainer, according to their hourly rate. When that retainer runs out, the lawyer asks for more money.

However, beneficiaries are not in a position where they can pay lawyers to represent them in a trust contest or a will contest case. So, there is an option for contingency fee.  Now, keep in mind, you generally do better overall to hire a layer on an hourly basis, if you can, because you’ll spend less overall on a case than you will if there’s a successful outcome in a contingency fee case, as far as attorney’s fees go.

Let’s give an example.  You hire a lawyer to handle a case for you.  You’ve got a million dollars at stake and you pay that lawyer $100,000 in hourly fees to get you your access to that million dollars.  Well, that’s a pretty good result for you. You paid $100,000 in hourly fees to that lawyer and you end up getting the million dollars that was supposed to come to you.

If you didn’t have the money to pay the lawyer on an hourly basis, you could hire that same lawyer on a contingency fee basis, which is a percent of the recovery.  Generally speaking, most cases are going to be 40% in California.  So, using the same example, a lawyer works the case for a year and a half or two years, and just before trial, the case settles and it’s a million-dollar recovery to you.  If you apply the math at 40%, that would be a $400,000 attorney’s fee and the balance would go to you.  You can see the difference.

It generally makes sense to hire a lawyer on an hourly basis, versus a contingency fee basis, but if you don’t have the ability to hire a lawyer on an hourly basis, then the best option for you to do is to consider the contingency fee, which is a way to recover something for you that you normally couldn’t get access to if you didn’t have a lawyer willing to take your case on a contingency fee basis.  So that’s just a little bit on how a contingency can work to return assets to you that are rightfully yours.

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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson & Davidson. In this video, I want to talk about how we can support the claim, and meet our burden of proof, to show that undue influence took place.

Some of the markers that we look for are the actions by the person that we believe exerted or exercised undue influence over a decedent.  We want to look at this person’s place of business in the decedent’s life when the decedent was still living.  Did this person have control over the decedent’s access to food?  Did they have control over access to medications?  Did they have control over access to going to medical appointments to see physicians?  Did they have control over the financial information of the decedent?

We see these markers and we look at this person and we say, “did they take their place within the decedent’s life, where the decedent relies on them for many things:  their medications, transportation, food?  Did they take that and did they exercise undue pressure over the decedent to get the decedent to create a trust or a will that benefits them, at the expense of other people?”

The more we see these markers, the more that we see the undue pressure, such as a wrongdoer calling up a lawyer that the decedent has never met to make an appointment to create a new trust or a new amendment or a new will or a codicil to that will, to that person driving the decedent to the lawyer, to meeting in the lawyer’s office with the lawyer and the decedent to create the trust, to have multiple emails and texts with the drafting attorney to make sure that the trust or will is drafted according to the decedent’s wishes, those are all things that we see time and time again in these undue influence cases.

One thing that really helps us, in addition to everything I’ve just pointed out is the medical records. Do the medical records show that the decedent suffered from some type of mental incapacity, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s?  It doesn’t have to be dementia or Alzheimer’s, but that’s one we commonly see.  If the decedent is suffering from any mental incapacity issues, and you have all of those other things we’ve talked about, those elements we’ve looked at, where this person is in a position of power, that generally leads us to believe that that person exercised undue influence over this individual. If they’re receiving a lion share of the estate plan, or they are receiving more than they would have, absent the undue influence.

Those are some of the things we look at to determine if we can show undue influence took place during the lifetime of decedent, often shortly before the decedent passed away.

 

 

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Hi, this is Keith Davidson at Albertson & Davidson.  In this video, I want to discuss whether the successor trustee of a trust has an obligation to declare the trust settlor incompetent.

Let me explain some of those terms before we get started. The settlor is the person who creates the trust. Typically, when people create these revocable living trusts, they’re the settlor, the creator, and the are also the trustee during their lifetime, so they manage those trust assets.  Somebody is usually named the successor trustee for when the original trustee either loses capacity or dies.

The question is: if you are named as a successor trustee, and you’re seeing the trust settlor is fading and losing capacity, is there an obligation to step in and take action?  This usually happens within families. For example: your father creates a trust, he’s the trustee, and you’re one of three children and named as the successor trustee. You can see that Dad is fading, and starting to lose capacity, and that he is having a hard time managing the finances.  Do you, as a successor trustee, have an obligation to step in and take action?

The interesting thing is that from a legal perspective, you don’t have any legal obligation to step in. A successor trustee doesn’t have any duties, responsibilities, or obligations until they agree to act as trustee.

But, then there’s the moral obligation.  You know that if the trustee can’t manage finances, he going to cause harm to himself because his finances won’t be properly managed, and he’s also going to cause harm to the other trust beneficiaries receiving these assets after he passes away.  And from that perspective, maybe you do have a moral obligation to step in.

The good news: that most trusts usually have a section that tells you what you need to do to have the settlor deemed incompetent. Once you do those things, the settlor is no longer trustee and the successor can step in and start acting.

Many trust documents say you need a letter or declaration from at least one or two treating physicians.  And that’s all you need.  Once you have that letter from the doctor deeming the settlor incompetent, the successor trustee can step into place.  It’s just that simple.  You don’t have to go to court to get an incapacity declaration or a conservatorship. Just follow the steps in the trust.

If your trust doesn’t have instructions on how to have the trustee declared incapacitated, then you do have to go to court.  This is harder and can be a problem.  However, I estimate 90% of trusts have instructions on how to handle the settlor’s incapacity.

So, take a look at your trust. See what it says, and follow those steps. Then, the successor trustee can step in, control and properly manage the assets, and make sure that the trust is stable moving forward.

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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson & Davidson and I want to talk to you about one of more difficult set of cases we come across and I call these the “Difficult Don’t Miss Undue Influence Cases”.  Let me say that one more time – the Difficult Don’t Miss Undue Influence Case.

What is the difficult don’t miss undue influence case?  That’s where someone has exercised undue influence over your mom or dad while they are still living and mom and dad have not passed away.  And so the question is, what can we do to invalidate the trust or the will that the wrongdoer got created using – exercising undue influence over mom and dad?

These are very difficult cases and the reason they are is because it comes down to California law and capacity and where mom and dad fits in that capacity determination.  So, you can file what we call a conservatorship proceeding where you ask the court to put someone else in charge of mom or dad’s estate.  But, as you can probably imagine, if mom or dad has any capacity whatsoever, they don’t like being told that they don’t have capacity and they certainly aren’t going to like that you’re the one who is asking the court to find that they are not capacitated.  So mom and dad can become upset by this.

The person who’s the wrongdoer who is already unduly influencing your mom or dad, they’re going to take advantage of this situation and they’re going to point out to your mom or dad, that look, your son not only doesn’t love you and doesn’t like you, your son wants to take your capacity away.  You son’s trying to get access to your estate before you’re even gone.  This son of yours is a greedy heir and we see this again time and time in these cases where mom and dad are still living and somebody is exercising undue influence over them.

So what are you to do in these type of difficult cases?  Do you file for conservatorship and that’s why we call these the Difficult Don’t Miss Undue Influence Cases.  Because if you’re going to file for conservatorship, you have to win it.  If you don’t win it and mom and dad is capacitated – are still capacitated and a court finds that they’re capacitated.  Chances are if you were in their trust or will, you’re certainly not going to be in it now by way of an amendment or a codicil to the will.  And then you’re going to have a much higher hill to climb after your mom and dad die when you do bring a trust contest or a will contest.

So, what is a better option, perhaps?  And it’s hard, because, sometimes you have to sit back and do nothing while mom and dad are living.  And what we suggest to many clients is just focus on mom or dad in their sunset years of their live, give them comfort, give them care, give them compassion, spend time with them.  Don’t talk to them about their trust or their will.  Don’t talk to them about their assets – as difficult as that may be.  Because the person who is exercising undue influence over them will turn that against you and make it seem like YOU’RE the one that’s trying to get their assets.  YOU’RE the one that’s the greedy heir.  YOU’RE THE problem, not them.

So if you can, stay disciplined.  Focus on your parents.  Care for them in the sunset years, however many months or years they have left.  Then, once they pass away, there are remedies available to you, such as a trust contest, a hill contest, and financial elder abuse that you can file to remedy the undue influence that took place against your parents during their lifetime.

These are very difficult cases.  It’s very difficult to determine the best route to take.  Our advice is generally to err on the side of caution and that is wait till your mom or dad pass and then you can address the undue influence.

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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson & Davidson and I want to talk to you just briefly about three important sets of documents that we need to get quickly in any type of trust or will contest.  So this happens when a client has already shown up and hired a lawyer.  They’ve already filed their trust contest or their will contest and now the question is what documents do we need to begin the case?  To begin our discovery, to begin strategizing how we’re going to overturn the trust or the will that is a product of undue influence or lack of capacity.

And these come down to three subpoenas and they should go out quickly.  You want to get these documents quickly, to make sure you get the full set of documents, and then you want to have the right people review them once you have them so they can help shape your case going forward, help shape your discovery and, hopefully, shape a successful outcome in invalidating a trust or a will that is the product of undue influence or lack of capacity.

The first set of documents that we want to subpoena right away are from the estate planning attorney.  So the estate planning attorney who drafted the trust or the will or both, we want to get a letter to them immediately telling them to safeguard their file and they can be accept – expecting a subpoena.  Once they receive that subpoena, they have a short time to respond and most estate planning attorneys will send us their files so that we can review them to see what were the circumstances around the creation of the trust or the will.

Sometimes, these attorneys though, they decide they don’t want to send the file and that’s not a problem.  Because then we can file a motion to compel, is what we call it, file that in court and we’ll get a judge to order them to give us the documents.  In many cases, once we file this motion to compel, the estate planning attorney will agree and send over the files.  So that’s the first set of documents you must get in a trust and will contest – and the sooner, the better!

The second set of documents will be the medical records and these are rich – especially if the decedent had multiple providers.  So you want to subpoena out to every single medical provider that you are aware of.  Once you have the first set of medical records, there’ll be other doctors, other hospitals, other medical providers that you’ll in those medical records.  In many cases, neurologists and those are really good medical records to get – so you’ll want to send out subsequent subpoenas for those documents as well.  Most big medical providers are very good at responding to subpoenas and in short order, if you give them a subpoena that’s well drafted and it details exactly what you’re looking for, you will have medical records that you can review to look for things such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and other mental/cognitive deficits that may have impacted the decedent at the time that the will or trust was created that you’re alleging was the product of undue influence of lack of capacity.

Finally, the last set of records are the financial records, and they’re also rich.  Especially if there’s a wrongdoer who did exercise undue influence over your mom or dad before they passed away.  This person generally can’t wait to get their hands on the money until the person dies, so they get their hands on the money during lifetime and they start taking a lot of cash withdrawals from the ATM, they’ll write checks to themselves calling them cash.  They may even sign them for the decedent, your mom or your father, and take this money and start spending it, using it for whatever it is they want to use it for.

So once you file the trust or will contest, you want to jump quickly on these three sets of documents.  Once you have them, they’re going to go a long way in getting you to a good settlement, or you’re going to be able to prove at the time of trial that, in fact, undue influence or lack of capacity did take  place in the creation of the will and the trust.

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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson & Davidson and I want to talk to you about undue influence cases.  What makes a good undue influence case and what makes a not-so-good undue influence case?  And let me just set this out as we meet with lots of people that come into our office saying, “Hey, I want to contest my mom or dad’s trust or their will because I know that my brother Bob exercised undue influence over my parents and I’ve been written out of the will or the trust and I will receive no inheritance and I’ve got the best evidence you’ve ever seen Mr. Albertson, or Mr. Davidson, and we’re going to come in here and we’re just, this is going to be a slam-dunk.  You’re going to have no problem winning this case!”

The type of evidence you need to have a good undue influence case, it’s a high bar.  The burden of proof that’s required for you is high.  It’s not easy to invalidate a trust or a will.  So that begs the question, “OK, well then what makes a good undue influence cases versus a not-so-good undue influence case?”

Well, let’s talk about some of the elements that you need to meet to prove that undue influence did, in fact, take place.  One of the first things we have to show is we have to show that the decedent, your parent in this case, was a vulnerable individual.  We can show that several ways.  The most easy way to show that is that they’re over the age of 65 or they’re a dependent adult.  So if they’re over 65, chances are, you could show that they have some vulnerable to them.  The State of California has addressed financial elder abuse and said, “Look, we see a lot of financial elder abuse happening in our state, so we want to stop that.  And so what we’ve done is we’ve set out some criteria for people to look at.  This, these are the elements that we look to to prove an undue influence claim.”

The other way you can look to see if a person is vulnerable is what if they have some type of a medical issue?  What if they have some diagnosis for dementia or Alzheimer’s or anything of the like that affects their mental cognition?  That is something that also will support the element of the decedent being vulnerable.

We also want to look to other elements.  What about the actions or the tactics of the wrongdoer?  The wrongdoer is the person that exercised undue influence over the decedent.  And a lot of times this is not something that you see that’s nefarious or evil or somebody yelling or screaming at the decedent, it’s actually done in a very nice manner.  And it happens like this:  The wrongdoer comes to the decedent while they’re still living and says, “How come your son, Johnny, doesn’t come visit you anymore?  Oh, you know, I don’t think Johnny cares about you.  It’s too bad that Johnny’s not here to take care of you like I’m taking care of you.”  And it’s just done over time.  And, of course, this person already – the decedent already is vulnerable, because they’re older, over 65 or older, they may have a health issue, and so now you have this person who is doing deceitful actions and tactics to influence the elder that their son Johnny really doesn’t care about them and we see this element time and again in a good undue influence case.

We also want to look to another element and that is what type of authority did the wrongdoer have over the decedent?  And authority can come in many forms.  Authority can be that this is the person’s agent, under their durable power of attorney, or maybe they’re already the trustee of the trust.  They can also be somebody that the decedent relies on for their necessaries of live, such as daily medication.  Somebody to drive them to doctor’s offices.  Somebody to help change their diaper in bed.  Somebody that makes sure that hospice is taking care of them.  Here we see the decedent, the elder, is being very reliable on this person who has this apparent authority over them.

The last element that you want to flush out in a good undue influence case is there is an inequitable result.  This is most easily shown in cases where the decedent had a preexisting estate plan that gave everything equally to all of their children.  And we see this time and again.  And then just before they die, they make a change to that trust that did give everything equally to all their children, and they give everything to one person, either one of their children or the wrongdoer who has come into their life and has now exercised undue influence over them.

So in order to have a good undue influence case, where you can meet the burden of proof which is a high bar in the State of California, you’re going to have to show that the victim was vulnerable, that the wrongdoer used actions or tactics that were deceitful, that the wrongdoer had apparent authority over the decedent, and the results that the wrongdoer got was inequitable.  If you can pull all of those elements together through a totality of the circumstances and showing the evidence, you probably have a good undue influence case.

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Hi, this is Keith Davidson with Albertson & Davidson. In this video, I want to talk about some of the warning signs that you should be aware of to clue you in that undue influence might be taking place with one of your parents.

As lawyers, when we get undue influence cases we typically get them after everything’s been done and we’re looking at the facts in hindsight. But, as a child, there’s times when things happen, and you might be suspicious of what’s happening, but you’re not sure if it’s something bad or not. That’s what I want to talk about. These are the warning signs that really should be on your radar and start raising red flags when you see them.

For example, let’s say you have a parent, and you can tell that they’re kind of slowing down, and you notice that somebody (like a neighbor, a caregiver, or a stranger who you don’t even know), starts spending a lot of time with that parent at their house, and then they start helping the parent write checks or go to medical appointments. That could be a real red flag of somebody who’s trying to cozy into the parent and slowly take control.

Typically, the way undue influence works is: somebody starts off by being just a friend, and then a helper, and then they start taking over everything; check-writing, finances, medications, doctor visits, even communications. That’s another warning sign.

Let’s say that you are finding it difficult to talk to your parent. You try calling them and somebody else answers the phone and won’t let you speak. Or, when you talk to your parent, there’s somebody else who’s always on the other line, listening in. That’s a huge red flag that somebody is probably trying to control the flow of information to the parent. That could be a real problem. So that’s another big warning sign.

One of the elements of undue influence is that somebody controls the necessities of life; food, medication, all those sorts of things. So if you see somebody who you aren’t that familiar with, and they’re doing all the grocery shopping for your parent they’re making meals for the parent they might be doing something that’s really nice and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, or they might be doing something where they’re controlling the flow of food to the parent which is one way to manipulate somebody who is old and not able to resist undue influence. But, that doesn’t mean that every time you see one of these things that it’s bad, but it definitely should raise your attention and you should look into it.

So those are some of the warning signs that you should be on the lookout for in possible undue influence against one of your loved ones.

 

Our newest Form Vault video walks you through the Notice of Petition for Probate, form DE-121. This is the notice you must use when filing a Petition for Probate using form DE-111. Our previous Form Vault video was on the Petition for Probate, we now cover the notice form you need in this video.

You can find links to the California Judicial Council Form here.  And a link to a Notice of Petition for Probate, Form DE-121 here.

Also, you can see all of our videos on our YouTube Channel here.

We will have new Form Vault videos posting on our YouTube Channel every Monday. Stay tuned for more helpful information to come.

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Hi, this is Keith Davidson at Albertson & Davidson.  And in this video, I want to discuss step-parents.  And I don’t mean to disparage step-parents, there’s a lot of very good step-parent and step-child relationships out there.  But, there’s also some bad ones.  And a lot of times we’re asked, “Can my step-mom or step-dad, can they change the estate plan after my parent dies?”  So, typically, in this scenario, maybe you have a father who married somebody new and that’s your step-mom.  And then your father passes away and you always thought you had a good relationship with your step-mom, but after your dad passes, things start to get a little strained and awkward and you start to wonder can she actually change the estate?

In some cases, it might actually get downright hostile and maybe the step-mom actually tells you, “I’m changing the estate and I’m leaving it all to my kids and I’m not going to leave your father’s share to you after all.”  And you wonder, can she do that?  And the answer is maybe.  And that’s a typical lawyer answer, right?  But it depends; it depends on what your father did when he planned out his estate.  Or, if he didn’t have any planning at all, that could be a real problem.

So the best case scenario would be if your father had created a trust prior to his death, he has the right to leave assets to step-mom and that’s fine.  But, typically, what you’d want to see is that he left money to step-mom in a trust.  So she can use that money for her care and support during her lifetime, but she can’t change the ultimate distribution of it.  Whatever’s leftover after step-mom passes, has to go to you.  But that only works if your dad created a trust and if he had a trust created that had those type of terms in it that allowed the step-mom to use the assets but not control them.  That required that the assets go to you after death.

If your father didn’t do that, then you probably are not going to be entitled to his share of the estate.  And so what happens a lot of times is, either your father leaves everything to the step-mom, in which case she can do whatever she wants after your father dies, and she can cut you out.  Or, he just doesn’t plan at all and things just pass to the step-mom because it’s in joint tenancy or she’s the beneficiary on life insurance, or whatever the case may be.

So when these things are not planned out and if the assets actually pass to step-mom after your father passes away, then you’re really in trouble, because the step-mom can do whatever she likes.  She becomes the owner of those assets and she can do whatever she wants with them as the owner.

The fact that your father may have had a family home that you grew up in and lived in and has been in the family for decades, the law doesn’t care about that – if your father didn’t plan it out property.  And so that’s really the big question.

So anytime somebody approaches us and says, “Can step-mom change the estate after my father passes away?”  The first question we’re going to have is, “Well, what did your dad have in place?  Did he have a trust?  Did he have a will?  Did he have something that we can look at to see if you, as a child, have any rights to any of those assets?” And if you were to tell us that no, he didn’t have any of those things, then chances are, you’re out of luck.  And that’s a little something about the downfalls of step-parent and step-children relationships when it comes to passing assets.