California Trust and Will litigation is like building a puzzle.  There are a lot of moving parts in most cases and trying to figure out how and when to put the parts together can be confusing.

The Fourth District Court of Appeals recently set Trust litigators straight on how and when a Trustee can be sued by Trust beneficiaries, in a case titled “Estate of William A. Giraldin” (2011, No. G041811).  Associate Justice William W. Bedsworth authored the opinion that holds beneficiaries have no standing to sue a Trustee for alleged breaches of fiduciary duty that occurred while the Settlor (which is the Trust creator) is still alive and had the power to revoke the Trust.  My first reaction: What???

In Estate of Giraldin, the decedent, William Giraldin had created a revocable, living trust.  Although he was the “Settlor”, because he created the Trust, he appointed one of his five sons, Tim, as the successor Trustee.  The Trust was revocable by William Giraldin during his lifetime and, therefore, under Probate Code Section 15800, the Trustee, while acting as Trustee during William’s lifetime, only owed duties to William—not the named Trust beneficiaries (Williams’ other four sons)..  In other words, the Probate Code specifically states that the Trustee does not owe any fiduciary duties to the children of William (who are “contingent” beneficiaries so long as William is alive) until after William’s death.

The problem in Estate of Giraldin revolved around a large investment William made, over $4 million, into a start-up company owned, in part, by his son Tim.  After William created the Trust, and made his investment in Tim’s company, William stepped down as Trustee and allowed Tim to act as Trustee of his Trust.  But Tim was acting at William’s direction.

As might be expected, the start-up company William invested $4 million in did not survive, and William’s wealth plummeted as a result.  After William’s death, the other siblings were not happy that William invested so much of his money into Tim’s company only to have it disappear (I would imagine that had Tim’s company been successful, the other siblings would have been quite happy).  So Tim’s siblings sued Tim for breach of Trust claiming, among other things, that Tim never should have allowed William to invest in the company and lose his $4 million.

The Trial court agreed with Tim’s siblings and awarded a surcharge against Tim in excess of $4 million (yikes!).  Tim naturally chose to appeal that ruling and Justice Bedsworth gives us new law with a ground-breaking result for Trust litigation issues—he reversed the surcharge.  Tim owes nothing!

Before Estate of Giraldin, it was generally assumed that while beneficiaries could not sue a Trustee while the Settlor was alive, they could do so after the Settlor’s death.  The beneficiary could receive both an accounting of actions that took place before the Settlor’s death and even ask for a surcharge for any breach of Trust that occurred during that time.  This was based on Evangelho vs. Presoto (1998) 67 Cal. Appl. 4th 615.  Not so fast, says Justice Bedsworth.  He overrules the concepts set down in Evangelho.

Instead, the Court states that when a Trust is revocable by a Settlor, the only duty a Trustee owes is to that Settlor.  Therefore, there is no basis, and even no standing(!), for beneficiaries to seek an accounting of Trust actions or assert a breach of Trust for actions taken during that time.  What about breaches that the Trustee incurs, but the Settlor could not assert due to the ill-health or lack of capacity of the Settlor?  The Court says that can be taken up by the Settlor’ successor’s-in-interest, which usually means his Executor or surviving heirs.  But that type of action must assert wrongs against the Settlor, which did not occur in this case.

In fact, in the Estate of Giraldin matter, the only wrongs asserted by the beneficiaries is that they should have had an extra $4 million to split among themselves.  Everyone agreed that the Settlor wanted to invest in Tim’s company and had the capacity to do so.  They merely asserted that Tim should have stopped William from investing how he liked.  The Court disagreed, saying that during the Settlor’s lifetime, since the Settlor has the power to revoke the trust, the Trustee must do as the Settlor directs.  This is true even if the investing decisions are foolish. 

Had the beneficiaries been asserting wrongs committed as against William, then it may have been a different story.  Or if the investing had occurred after William died, when the Trustee owned a duty to his siblings as vested trust beneficiaries, there would have been a different outcome.  But under these facts, the Trustee gets a free-pass because he based his actions on the directions of the Settlor.

Giraldin is a well-reasoned and well-written opinion and makes sense on the facts of that case.  But the downside of a case like this is that the new argument for every Trustee acting while the Settlor is alive is going to be “the Settlor made me do it”—no matter whether that is true or not.  It will then be up to the beneficiaries to show whether that is true.