Want to know why beneficiaries lose Trust and Will cases? They fall prey to the “greedy heir” defense. The greedy heir defense goes like this: a beneficiary challenges the wrongful acts of a Trustee and the Trustee responds by saying the beneficiary is just greedy. Or an heir who has been disinherited challenges a Trust or Will (or an amendment to a Trust and Will), and they are described as greedy.
Legally speaking, greed is not a proper defense to either a Trust accounting or a Trust or Will contest. But these cases are heard and decided by Judges in California, and Judges are people too. While Judges may be constrained by the law, they also have discretion to decide the facts of a case—who is right and who is wrong. And it’s just human nature to want to decide against a “greedy” person.
How do you counteract the greedy heir defense? As a beneficiary or heir, you have to appear reasonable in what you are arguing and how you present your case in Court. That means, at times, you can’t go after every little issue or every little argument. You have to be strategic and decide what’s worth fighting over and (sometimes more importantly) what isn’t. It’s not what’s important to you that matters, it’s the impact your arguments have on the Judge that counts.
For example, typically Trust and Will litigation involves various family members arguing over an estate. They have a long history together and may have years’ worth of arguments, insults, and general bad acts that have built up over time. Many times litigants want to focus on something the other side did many years ago because they think it shows some pattern of behavior or establishes that the other person is rotten. But these past insults are rarely worth bringing into Court. They take too much time to explain to the Judge and the Judge usually could care less about past disputes. In litigation, you’re living in the here and now—so what you argue needs to be well crafted and to the point. There may be one or two examples of past bad acts that are relevant, but probably not worth mentioning.
Instead, a beneficiary or heir needs to focus on the relevant facts of the case. If the Trustee has not properly managed the Trust, what did they do and why was it not proper? That alone is enough to establish a breach of Trust and hold the Trustee liable. The fact that the Trustee may have also been a jerk for many years is not so relevant. This isn’t Family Feud, it’s trial. Stay on task and be strategic about the arguments you make. The more focused your arguments, the less “greedy” you appear in Court.