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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 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.

THE FOLLOWING IS A TRANSCRIPT OF THIS VIDEO. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CLICK HERE

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.

 

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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson and Davidson and we get this question every now and then, and the question is: Do I really need to hire a lawyer for my trust contest or will contest or can I do it on my own? Can I go order a book from Nolo press or from Amazon and just figure out how to do this myself? And here’s the answer: No. That could be the end of this article right now, but no, you cannot handle your own trust contest or will contest.

I know that sounds like a self-serving statement because I’m a lawyer and I get paid to bring these cases, but this would be like asking you, can you handle your own gallbladder surgery? Can you handle your own appendectomy? Can you handle your own heart surgery? No, you’re going to have to hire professionals to do that if you want it done right. So get the books from Amazon, get the books from Nolo press so that you can educate yourself on what a trust contest is, a will contest, and how they work so that you can go in and sit down and have a good conversation with a professional lawyer to determine the best course of action moving forward. But if you really want a trust contests or a will contest done properly, you’re going to have to use a professional lawyer who has the experience in the field to handle it properly.

 

Time's Up!

When faced with a Probate Court Petition that you do not agree with, you must object. Luckily, in California you have some leeway on when you can object because our Probate Code allows interested parties to object orally at the initial hearing. In other words, you technically do not have to have a written objection before the initial hearing date.

But that does not mean that objecting orally is the best way to go. In most cases, we prefer to file a written objection at least five days before the hearing date to ensure that the objections are preserved.

Probate court is a court of equity—meaning the court can take action, issue orders, and approve petitions anytime there are no objections. Even when there are objections the court can overrule the objections and issue orders—although the law requires a trial at which to present evidence to decide most probate court matters.

The point is that if you fail to object in writing, and if you fail to show up on time at the probate court hearing, then you may be out of luck. Once the court issues orders or approves a petition, it takes a good deal of work to overturn the result—assuming you can overturn it at all.

If you are going to rely on an oral objection at a probate court hearing, then be sure to show up on time. If you want to play it safe, then file your written objection well before the hearing date so the judge will be sure to read it.

Can you unduly influence someone NOT to take action?-2

Can you unduly influence someone NOT to take an action?  In nearly all Trust and Will disputes, an undue influence claim is brought to overturn a Trust or Will that was executed while the elder was unduly influenced.  But not every Trust and Will case turns on action, sometimes inaction can be just as damaging.

For example, sometimes parents get mad at their children (sometimes you ask?  Okay it happens all the time).  And to punish the child, a parent will rush to the lawyer’s office and amend the Trust or Will to reduce that child’s share or disinherit them altogether.

A few years go by, the parent and child make amends, and the parent wants to change the Trust and Will again to return the child to his full share of the estate.  But then, another child gets wind of this intent and tries to prevent it.  Maybe the other children had no problem with this one “trouble maker” getting booted out of the estate and thereby increasing everyone else’s share.

Undue influence is the use of severe pressure that causes the elder to replace his or her own intent with that of the wrongdoer.  Influence (of the undue variety) is not illegal.  Everyone is influenced every day by the people around them.  But undue influence is more sinister in that is supplants the intent of the elder completely.

Undue influence can be used to cause a person to act, or refrain from acting, in a way that overcomes the person’s free will.  (See Welfare and Institutions Code section 15610.70).

As a result, where a parent is kept from changing a Trust to add a disinherited child back into the estate, undue influence could be used to overcome the resulting distribution.

It is not just what a parent does, but what a parent does not do, that could form the basis of a Trust or Will lawsuit.

Last week the San Bernardino County Sherriff’s office announced that they have arrested a caretaker for alleged forgery and identity theft of a family’s living trust.  This is big deal because wrongdoers are so rarely arrested and charged for their criminal actions in Trust and Will cases. 

Woman in Jail.jpg

According to the San Bernardino County Sherriff’s office, Stephanie Danna was arrested and charged with perjury, forgery and identify theft for allegedly forging a decedent’s signature on a Trust and falsifying notary signatures and fingerprints.  The decedent was Ernest Vilmos, who died in 2011.  After his death, Mr. Vilmos’ daughters, Julie Denges and Cheri Romano, filed a Trust contest action in San Bernardino Superior Court seeking to set aside the false documents.  That action is still pending. 

After nearly two years of civil litigation, the Sherriff’s office conducted a criminal investigation, executed search warrants, and put together a criminal case against Stephanie Danna.

“Julie and Cheri knew in their hearts that their father’s purported Trust was forged,” says Attorney Damian Garcia, of Banks, Garcia and Janis in Rancho Cucamonga, California—he represents Julie and Cheri.  “Very rarely do I see criminal action taken on a Trust matter like this because law enforcement usually views these as ‘civil cases’ even when they involve criminal financial activity,” said Garcia.

I agree with Mr. Garcia.  What Ms. Danna is accused of doing in this case is not uncommon.  Bad caretakers can be found in a surprising number of cases, and some have become sophisticated in siphoning off assets of a dependent elder.  But the criminal investigation and prosecution of these crimes is rare.  In my experience, I have seen wrongdoers steal in excess of $1 million and still not be investigated or prosecuted criminally.  Clients of mine have reported wrongdoers to law enforcement many times with no action being taken in most cases.

“The real difference maker here seems to be the forged signature and forged thumb print in the notary journal.  It seems to have peaked the interest of law enforcement and was most likely the deciding factor in their decision to conduct a criminal investigation,” said Damian Garcia. 

Hopefully, this case can be an example of how law enforcement can target and prosecute criminal wrongdoers in the Trust and Will field.  Those wrongdoers are out there and their actions wreak havoc in many estates. 

What to do if the other party is acting on the docs, pulling assets, selling homes, and you are still preparing your case?

Last week I discussed some of the ways in which Trust and Estate assets can be frozen pending a lawsuit.  In my previous post I discussed Liens and restraining orders/injunctions.  In this post, volume 2, I have a few more ideas:

1.     Petition for Instructions and Blocked Accounts.  California Probate Code Section 17200(b)(6)provides a procedure where a beneficiary can ask the Court to instruct a Trustee to do certain things, such as follow the Trust terms.  And the Court has a good deal of leeway in fashioning remedies to help protect Trust and Estate assets.  One example is the use of Blocked Accounts. 

A Blocked Account is just a bank account set up by the Trustee or Executor into which the estate funds are deposited.  Once on deposit, the money cannot be withdrawn, transferred, spent, etc. without a Court order authorizing the action.  In other words, the account is blocked in the sense that it cannot be accessed without the Court’s approval.  As you might imagine, a blocked account is very helpful in terms of freezing liquid (i.e., cash) assets pending a lawsuit.  Of course, you need a good reason for the Court to order a blocked account.  But where facts are present that Trust assets are being wasted or spent inappropriately, it is a helpful remedy to ensure the funds are not dissipated pending the lawsuit.

2.     Ex Parte Petition to Suspend Trustee.  Many beneficiaries wish to remove the Trustee when the trust administration goes badly.  And the probate Court does allow removal for various reasons (see our earlier blog post on Trustee removal).  But a removal petition takes time to prosecute because the Court ultimately needs to set if for trial and that can take a while (i.e., one to four years!!).  In the meantime, the Trustee is still in office and potentially able to do more damage.

The solution is to seek a suspension of the Trustee.  The Court can temporarily suspend a Trustee and appoint a neutral third party to act as Trustee until such time as the Trustee removal petition is heard at trial (See Probate Code Section 15642(e)).  The benefit of suspension is that it can occur without a full-blown trial because it is just a temporary measure meant to maintain the Trust in its current position without any further harm.  The detriment of suspension is that it’s not always easy to obtain from the Court. 

The easiest way to obtain a Trustee suspension is to show that the Trustee is misappropriating funds (see my earlier blog post of this topic).  With the right set of facts, a Trustee can be temporarily suspended, which makes the beneficiaries breath a little easier during a lawsuit.

3.     Trustee’s Bond.  Requesting that a Trustee be bonded is not so much an asset freeze technique, but rather a safeguard against wrongdoing.  A bond (called a surety bond) is merely a way in which the wrongful acts of the Trustee can be paid by the bonding company.  However, unlike insurance, once a bond pays out, the bonding company has the right to sue the Trustee personally to get its money back.

The benefit of the bond is that it provides a deep pocket from which damages can be paid for any breaches of trust committed by the Trustee.  Most Trusts specifically waive bond for a Trustee, but a Court can still requiring a bond if necessary to protect beneficiaries.

The downside of a bond is that you must prove that the Trustee did breach his or her fiduciary duties before the bond is liable to pay anything.  So you won’t know if money will be paid on the bond until you go through trial and, hopefully, prevail.  And since the bonding company is on the hook if you do prevail at trial, they have the right to have their own attorney at the trial to help defend the Trustee.

One of the advantages of creating a revocable, living Trust is the ability of the successor Trustee to quickly and smoothly take control of the Trust assets after the Settlor (i.e., Trust creator) dies.  But this can also be a burden to a beneficiary, or a disinherited heir, who intends to contest the Trust terms.  It takes time to prepare, file, and have the Court hear a Trust contest.  In the meantime, the Trustee of the Trust is typically free to go about her business managing, and even distributing, Trust assets to the named beneficiaries—an alarming prospect to a contesting beneficiary.  The Trustee may even be able to empty the Trust of assets before the Trust contest is ever resolved.

Therefore, it is the contesting beneficiary’s duty to seek assistance from the Court to freeze the Trust assets, or at least put restraints on their transfer, pending the outcome of a Trust contest (many of the same methods also apply to Will contests, but a Will cannot be administered until after an Executor is appointed and the contest will prevent an Executor from being appointed—not so in Trust administrations).

What can a contesting beneficiary do in this situation? 

In California, the rules of general civil procedure apply to Trust and Will cases.  This allows a party to a Trust or Will matter to use civil discovery procedure, civil motions, and other forms of pre-judgment relief, such as Temporary Restraining Orders and Preliminary Injunctions (CCP 525 et seq.).  Here are a few actions a party can take to preserve Trust assets:

1.            Lien on Real Property– Notice of Pendency of Action (or “Lis Pendens”, I’ll refer to it as a lien in this post) is one of the easiest ways to secure real property pending the outcome of an underlying Trust and/or Will action.  But there’s a catch.  The underlying lawsuit must involve a Real Property Claim, which is defined as one that would affect title to, or the right to possession of, specific real property.  See California CCP 405.4.  In other words, the lawsuit must directly relate to who will possess title to the real property.  Thus, suing a Trust that has real property may or may not be enough to establish a Real Property Claim. 

For example, suing a Trustee for not managing rental property correctly is not a Real Property Claim because you would not be challenging who holds title, your just challenging the management of the real property by the Trustee.  Whereas, suing a Trust for exclusion of a beneficiary who would have had a right to receive title to real property had the Trust not been improperly amended shortly before death would qualify as a Real Property Claim because it affects who ultimately will hold title to the subject real property.

The advantage of using a Lis Pendens lien is that it is easy to prepare and record.  Once recorded it automatically secures the real property and prevents the property from being sold or refinanced until the lien is released.  The disadvantage of using a lien is that if you file one without a Real Property Claim at issue in the underlying suit, then you can be held liable for the opposing party’s attorneys’ fees and costs incurred to set aside the lien.  So this type of lien should only be used when there is a proper basis to do so.

2.            TRO and Preliminary Injunctions.  Trust and Will cases can be subject to Temporary Restraining Orders (TRO) and Preliminary Injunction to ensure that the Trust assets are not wasted.  But just as in civil matters, TRO’s and injunctions are not easy to obtain from the Court.  They are considered extraordinary remedies and you must establish (i) a likelihood of prevailing on your claim, and (ii) a right that cannot be adequately compensated by money damages.  The classic example is real property, which is considered unique under the law. 

However, it is possible, and I have had cases, where a TRO and injunction are ordered by the Court to ensure that a Trustee is not personally taking money from the Trust.  There has to be proof that the Trustee is taking money, but with that proof it is a possibility to obtain an injunction that will protect Trust assets until the underlying contest is resolved. 

My next post of this topic (Volume 2) will include:  (1) Petition for Instructions and Blocked Accounts, (2) Ex Parte Petition to Suspend Trustee and (3) Trustee’s Bond.