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

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.

 

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.

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

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.

 

Is an oral promise to make a will or trust enforceable under California law? Contrary to what many believe, California law provides for the enforcement of oral promises to make a will or trust.

How does the promise to make a will or trust arise? Generally, a parent orally promises a child, a friend, or a caretaker some or all of their assets once they die, if the child, friend, or caretaker agrees to do something for the parent. The “something” can be anything of value, but usually takes the form of the child, friend, or caretaker taking care of the parent until the parent’s death.

But what if the parent didn’t get around to writing a will or trust that states the child, friend, or caretaker gets some or all of the parent’s assets after they die? Or what if the parent never intended to write a will or trust reflecting the promise to the child, friend, or caretaker? Can the child, friend, or caretaker enforce the now deceased parent’s oral promise to give them assets? The answer is ‘yes’.

California Probate Code section 21700, entitled “Contract to make will” has a provision that allows a person to establish an oral promise by establishing that there was an agreement between the parent and the child, friend, or caretaker that the parent would leave some or all of their assets to the child, friend, or caretaker after they died.

But this is where it gets a bit tricky. The procedural hoops one must jump through to make a an initial claim to enforce an oral promise to make a trust or will under California requires the following:

  • First, one has to pay attention to the applicable statute of limitations. The statute of limitations simply tells us how long we have to file a lawsuit to enforce an oral promise. The applicable statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit to enforce an oral promise to make a will or trust is one year from the date of death of the parent. So if the parent dies on January 1, 2014, then the child, friend, or caregiver would have one year (to December 31, 2014) to file an actual lawsuit to enforce the claim.
  • Second, it gets even trickier. Before one can file a lawsuit based on a broken promise to make a will or trust, one must file a “creditor’s claim” in the estate of the deceased parent. The creditor’s claim is not difficult to complete and file, but if one fails to complete this step, and one year passes from the date of death of the parent, one is very likely barred forever from filing an actual lawsuit to enforce the parent’s promise.
  • Third, it’s still tricky. What if nobody has opened the deceased parent’s estate with the probate court? Can one simply wait until an estate is opened, whether that’s one or two years from now, and then file their creditor’s claim? The answer is very likely ‘no’. The applicable statute of limitations states that to enforce an oral promise to make a will or trust, a lawsuit must be filed within one year of the date of death of the parent. So if the probate estate is not opened, then one needs to file a petition for probate to open the parent’s estate with the probate court, file a creditor’s claim, and then file a lawsuit—all before the one year passes from the parent’s date of death.

Each of these steps must be completed before one can have their day in court to prove a claim based on an oral promise to make a California will or trust. If the one-year statute of limitations (calculated from the deceased parent’s date of death) is blown for any reason, the claim to enforce the oral promise is barred forever from being heard. Thus, it’s very important for one to understand and meet the procedural loopholes required to make a claim to enforce an oral promise.

Just in time for Halloween, the creation of the two-headed Trustee.  They say two heads are better than one.  So why not have two Trustees manage your Trust estate, or better yet a two-headed Trustee.

There can be strength in numbers.  And many Trusts are administered with skill and grace with two Trustees at the helm.  But not every partnership is successful.  When a two-headed Trustee decides to argue with itself, disaster abounds.

Sometimes two people appointed to act over a Trust estate simply do not see eye-to-eye.  They may disagree on investments, or distributions, or other management of Trust assets.  They each have duties and obligations to the Trust, but every Trustee can interpret how to act out those duties and obligations differently and still be within the range of reasonableness.

Worse yet, under the default rules of California Trust law, co-trustees must act unanimously if they are to act at all.  This means that one Trustee cannot simply break a deadlock by acting on his own.  One of the Co-Trustees does not have the power and authority to act alone.  Of course, the Trust document can change this requirement and allow one or both of the Co-Trustees to act alone, but Trust provisions rarely provide for that.

If Co-Trustees cannot agree on how to act or how to administer the Trust, then the horror of the two-headed Trustee comes to life because nothing gets done.  Further, the Trust administration can turn into an ugly scene of chaos and destruction taking far more time, money, and emotional toll than is typically required to administer a Trust.

Ultimately, Co-Trustees can either resign or be removed by the Court, but that takes Court action—costing time and a good deal of money.  Plus, you never know how the Court will rule when asking it to intervene in Trust affairs—it may not go your way.

The solution, therefore, lies in choosing the right heads to put together as a two-headed Trustee in the first place.  Naming two people to act just because you think two heads are better than one may back fire if the two heads you name can’t work well together.  Do you want your Co-Trustees to be a successful working partnership or do you want to see the horrors of a bad Trust administration?  The choice is yours, put some thought into the decision and then choose wisely.

The biggest decision for anyone creating a revocable, living trust is the choice of Trustee.  A Trustee acts as the manager of the Trust assets.  They call all the shots, make all of the important decisions, and decide when and how the Trust assets will be distributed.  The Trustee is in a very powerful position, and like all positions of power, there are those who abuse their power to the detriment of the Trust beneficiaries.  This is why it is important to have a Trustee that you can trust.

Yet so many people create California Trusts without giving their selection of a Trustee much thought.  In part, this is due to the limited choices most people feel they have in selecting a Trustee.  Typically, the choice is made among the Settlor’s (a Settlor is the person creating a Trust) children.  This may work a majority of times, but it can also lead to a great deal of tension, which then sets the ground-work for lawsuits being filed by Trust beneficiaries against the Trustee.. 

In my opinion, having seen the worst case scenario of Trusteeship time and again, the following are a few of the factors you should consider in selecting your Trustee:

  1. A Capable Trustee.  First, and most importantly, you need a Trustee who can do the job.  Being a Trustee is a thankless position.  It is a position of power over assets, but it comes with a large number of duties and obligations imposed by California law and the Trust document.  If a Trustee fails to perform properly, then he or she is personally liable for any damages caused. 

 

Therefore, you need someone who has the ability to (1) manage financial assets, (2) follow directions as outlined in the Trust terms and the California Probate Code, and (3) manage the personalities of the beneficiaries.  Each of these elements is vitally important to a well-managed Trust.  Does that mean that your oldest child should be Trustee?  Not necessarily.  The more important question is who is capable of being a good Trustee.

 

    2.   An Independent Trustee.  There are choices for a Trustee outside your immediate family.  This includes corporate Trustees and so-called “private professional fiduciaries.” 

 

Corporate Trustees are financial institutions that act as Trustees of Trusts.  Some corporate Trustees require that the Trust have a minimum amount of assets before they will agree to act.  The benefit of a corporate Trustee is that they are in the business of managing Trusts.  They tend to be good at it.  And they have a team of professionals to oversee the Trust administration.  The downside is that they also tend to be the most expensive option—charging anywhere from .75% to 1.5% of the Trust assets on an annual basis. Additionally, Corporate Trustees are unlikely to have a personal relationship with the Trust beneficiaries, which means they will not know the individual needs of Trust beneficiaries like say a family member Trustee would.

 

“Private Professional Fiduciaries” are individuals who make their living acting as Trustee for people.  In California, private professional fiduciaries must be licensed.  Since they are in the business, they are good at managing Trusts and they tend to charge less than a corporate Trustee.  And good private professional Trustees can help manage both the assets and the relationships between the beneficiaries.

 

     3.  A Well Informed Trustee.  Whatever Trustee you choose, don’t forget to find out if that Trustee is well informed about handling Trust administrations.  This goes even for family members.  Why not talk to your child who you have named as successor Trustee to see whether (1) she even wants to act, (2) she knows what her duties are, and (3) she knows what your expectations are for management of the Trust estate.  This rarely occurs, and yet it could be very beneficial to the Trust administration.

The choice of Trustee is yours, but put some thought into that choice and choose wisely. 

Keith A. Davidson describes in this video the basic requirements for creating a California Will and Trust. He refers to the basic creation elements as “formalities” and “intentionalities”, terms he uses in teaching California Will and Trust creation at Chapman Law School (which he borrowed from his own Trust and Will professor, Father O’brien (thank you Father O’Brien!), who taught at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles).  For those viewing this blog by email subscription, you can click on the title for a link to the video.