Trust and Will lawsuits often provide different paths to the same destination. My client, a trust beneficiary, recently filed a lawsuit against a trustee of a California trust for financial elder abuse, and at the same time sued for undue influence to set aside the Trust amendment created at the hands of the Trustee/Abuser. In this case the Trustee ended up with a significant portion of the Trust and my client was effectively disinherited.

The Trustee, hoping for an easy out, tried to convince the Court that the elder abuse claim should be dismissed summarily (called a demurrer) because the claim was based on a transfer by Trust, and in his opinion, the abuse of the elder did not actually occur until the trust creators died and their Trust became irrevocable (the “taking argument”). His claim was that the beneficiary cannot use the same undue influence facts to (1) overturn the Trust amendment, and (2) sue for financial elder abuse.  In other words, he may have been an undue influencer for purposes of the Trust amendment, but not for purposes of financial elder abuse.

But California law disagrees. Specifically, there are three different ways in which financial abuse may be pleaded under the Elder Abuse Act found at Welfare and Institutions Code section 15610.30(a), which states a person is guilty of financial elder abuse if they take property of an elder for wrongful use, or with intent to defraud, or by way of undue influence. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15610.30, subdivisions (a)(1), (a)(2), and (a)(3).) Thus, the act of undue influence used to overturn a California Trust (or in this case a Trust amendment) can also be used to establish a claim for financial elder abuse. Further, the Elder Abuse Act defines a “taking” to include the receipt of assets by a “testamentary instrument”, which includes California trusts and wills. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15610.30(c).)

Does this mean my client would get double damages, one with the Trust set aside and another in the amount of the property taken? No. But it does mean my client can proceed on both claims and take full damages under either one. For example, the elder abuse statute allows for punitive damages and attorneys’ fee whereas the Trust set aside claim does not.

The trial court heard oral argument on the demurrer on May 5, 2011. After hearing oral argument, the trial court was persuaded that the financial elder abuse claim could go forward based on undue influence as it was properly pleaded in my client’s lawsuit, and was supported by the Elder Abuse Act.

The next time you see facts showing a “garden-variety” trust or will contest, think about whether those facts also support a claim based on financial elder abuse.

  • Dustin

    These are wonderful posts and very helpful. Thanks a lot!

  • Susan

    Interesting that your L.A. County judge saw it that way. Our Orange County cases are very similar in that we have filed a Petition in Probate court to set aside the trust for undue influence, and we also filed a Complaint for Financial Elder Abuse in Civil Court. Similarily, the trustee also hoping for an easy out, filed a demurrer to the Civil Elder Abuse complaint trying to argue standing or in the alternative a stay in proceedings. The Civil Court judge overruled their demurrer on the grounds of standing, but did grant them a stay of proceedings for 3 months so as to wait and see what happens in the probate court. Meanwhile, the Trustee attacked our Petition to have the Trust set aside with another demurrer, but the Probate Court judge also overruled that, so we are now awaiting an answer. Our civil case has an upcoming status conference in January, so do you have any advice or suggestions for trying to persuade our judge to vacate the stay on our Civil Elder Abuse case and let it proceed simultaneously with our Probate Petition to set aside the trust? Also, do you think amending the civil elder abuse case to include an additional cause of action for Intentional Interference of an Expected Inheritance would be wise at this time?