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.


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.



This is Stewart Albertson with Albertson and Davidson, and I want to talk to you about an issue that we do see from time to time called advances on inheritance. Advances on inheritance are essentially a loan that mom or dad makes to one child. They don’t want to be unfair in giving that loan to one of their children when they have several other children. So they basically tell the person they made the loan to, well that is an advance on your inheritance so that when I die, you’re going to have to take that into account based upon whatever your share of my estate is.

There’s a real problem with advances on inheritance though because the probate code has some technical requirements that must be met to qualify as an advance on inheritance. Otherwise, that payment of money from a parent to a child will be looked at as a gift.  If it’s a gift that makes a big difference because when the estate is distributed after mom and dad have passed away it’ll be distributed equally between all of the children without taking into account the “loan” that was made to one of the children during lifetime.

So how can you tell the difference between an advance on inheritance and a gift? The advance on inheritance can be proven in three primary ways. There’s actually a fourth way, but that gets a little complicated. If you really want to look into this, you can go to Probate Code section 21135, and you can read how you establish an advance on inheritance there.

Generally, the way you prove an advance on inheritance is:

  1. The trust or will terms themselves have in there saying, I’m giving $100,000 loan to my son Johnny, and when I die, this counts as part of his inheritance at the time he receives his ultimate distribution. That’s the first way that an advance on inheritance can be included and be supported by the evidence.
  2. The next way you can establish an advance on inheritance is did your mom or dad have a writing outside the trust or will that simply says: I hereby am making a loan to Johnny and after I die, that should be considered as part of his inheritance for distribution purposes. That would be the second way that you can establish an advance on inheritance.
  3. The third way is you have Johnny acknowledged in a writing that he’s already receiving some of his inheritance by way of a loan prior to mom and dad passing.

If you have any of those three, chances are you can establish an advance on inheritance.

As you can see, this is not always easy to do. If there is money that is given to one child, a lot of money, say several hundreds of thousands of dollars to one child and not to the other, and there’s nothing to establish an advance on inheritance, what is the argument the child makes who received the money during the parents’ lifetime? And that is, it was a gift. If it’s a gift, it won’t be chargeable against their share of the estate. It won’t be an advance on inheritance.


Are You Being Threatened with a Trust

Nearly everyday I hear from a Trust or Will beneficiary that they have been threatened with the No-Contest clause by their Trustee or Executor.  In today’s legal world, no-contest clauses are rarely enforceable.  And yet, the threat is made.  Learn what you have to fear, if anything, about your Trust or Will no-contest clause.

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.

Trust and Will law can be frustrating.  Especially when you are a helpless beneficiary looking to the Trustee to do the right thing and administer a Trust in a way that is fair and honest to all concerned.  Beneficiaries have rights, and they can pursue those rights in Court, but so often the outcome of a case depends on the gut-reaction of the judge hearing the matter.  In one case a Trustee may be fully surcharged, removed, and publicly flogged (well not flogged but you get the idea).  Yet the same case in front of a different judge may result in a hand-slap and wearing a dunce hat for a day.

Easy Way Out.jpg

Case in point, the California Court of Appeal’s decision in Lowe v. Holk.  Lowe involved the very common claim that many beneficiaries make against their Trustees-mismanagement of Trust assets.  The Trustee had retained a large amount of real property that was either not productive or was being occupied by the Trustee and other family members.  The Settlor (who is the person who created the Trust) died in 2007 and the real property declined rapidly in value along with the real estate bust that occurred from 2007 through 2011.  As the property crashed in value, the Trustee refused to sell the real property and diversify the Trust investments (as is required under the California Prudent Investor Act).  The Trustee also distributed the most valuable property to himself and transferred another rental property to his sister, a beneficiary of the Trust, but failed to tell her that the transfer of the property had occurred.

The sister/beneficiary sued on what appeared to be some very viable, and expensive claims against the Trustee.  The claims included loss of rental income for nearly 3 years, a decline in property value, conflict of interest for the Trustee’s occupying and ultimately distributing the most valuable property to himself.

The Trial Court, however, decided that most of the claims were not worth awarding damages.  The Court did award lost rent for a period of 2 years, and gave a minimal award for payment of utilities on a property occupied by another family member.  But the Court refused to award any damages for the substantial decrease in value for the Trust’s real property and also refused to award attorneys’ fees against the Trustee—or even remove the Trustee from office!  All told the surcharge against the Trustee came to around $141,000, which may sound good but paled in comparison to the losses the Trustee incurred.

Thumbnail image for Rights Photo.jpgSo the beneficiary appealed and the Court of Appeals held…that the Trial Court was right.  Hard to believe.  In actuality, the Court of Appeals didn’t really say the trial court was right, but chose to review the case on the “substantial evidence” test.  This means that the appellate Court looks at the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party and ask “could a reasonable fact-finder find for that party on this evidence.”  To put it another way, the Court gives all the benefit of any doubt to the winner and only overturnes the case if there is no substantial evidence to support the winning decision.  The appellate court does NOT retry to the case or re-evaluate the evidence.  As you can imagine, it is nearly impossible to overcome a Trial Court decision on appeal when the Appellate court uses the Substantial Evidence test.

The decision stands and the Trustee gets off with a light warning.  Meanwhile, this beneficiary loses more than just her case and a boat load of money on attorneys’ fees, she loses her rights under Trust law.  In this case, all the rules set forth about Trustee investing and managing Trust assets are rendered meaningless by the Court’s decision.   

1. The Law of Prohibited Transferees

If you’re like me, you would think that lawyers who draft Wills shouldn’t add themselves as beneficiaries (“I leave my entire estate to my beloved son…lawyer”).  Unfortunately, a few bad apples ruin the bunch, and a few bad lawyers disagreed with my opening sentence.  Thanks to them, we now have sections of the California Probate Code designed to prohibit certain people from taking under a Will or Trust—referred to as “prohibited transferees.”[1]  The law is intended to lock the gates to an estate from people who are in a position to take advantage of the Will creator.


Who are these “prohibited transferees”?  Some are obvious like the lawyer drafting the Will or Trust is a prohibited transferee.  So is anyone related by blood or marriage to the lawyer drafting the Will or Trust, and anyone in partnership with the lawyer drafting the Will or Trust.  We don’t want to benefit the lawyer, his or her family, or his or her business partners.  It also extends to others such as caregivers of a decedent and fiduciaries (people who may already be acting as trustee, agent, or conservator for the person who creates the Will or Trust).

But the law provides an exception to this rule where the prohibited transferee is related by blood or marriage to the Will or Trust creator.  So I can draft a Will for my mom and I am still allowed to take a gift under her Will because we are related.

2. The Court clarifies family relationships relating to Prohibited Transferee law

The California Court of Appeal for the Second District recently clarified what it means to be related to the person creating a Trust or Will, in Estate of Oligario Lira (decided December 26, 2012, published January 22 2013).  Oligario Lira married his wife, Mary Terrones, in 1968.  Oligario had three children from a prior marriage and Mary had six children from a prior marriage.  On February 21, 2008, Mary filed for divorce from Oligario, but the marriage was not legally terminated by the Court under February 21, 2010.  After the divorce filing, but before the legal termination, Oligario created a new Will (on January 6, 2009) naming his three natural children, and three of his stepchildren as beneficiaries.  The Will was created by his step-grandchild who was an attorney.

Oligario died on July 20, 2010, and a dispute arose between his natural child, Mary Ratcliff, and his stepson, Robert Terrones.  Mary’s main claim was that Robert was a prohibited transferee because Robert was related to the attorney who drafted the Will and Trust.  Under PC Section 21350(a)(2), such a relationship precludes Robert from inheriting under the Will.

Robert argued that he was exempt from the rule of prohibited transferee because he was related by marriage to the decedent (Oligario).  Just as I can create a Will for my mom and receive a gift, so too can Robert receive a gift from a Will created by his lawyer-son if Robert was related to Oligario.

The question turned on whether or not Oligario and Robert were related for purposes of this issue.  Robert argued that at the time the Will was signed, he was still related to Oligario by marriage.  Only after the marriage was legally terminated would that relationship end.  Mary argued that at the time of Oligario’s death Robert was not related and that should be the time for measuring family relations, not the time of signing the Will.

The trial court sided with Robert and the Appellate Court agreed.  Writing for the Court, Justice Perren held that the statute is properly interpreted to measure family relationships at the time the Will is signed.  Here, since the Will was signed before the court had legally terminated the marriage, Robert and Oligario were still related by marriage.  The fact that they were no longer related by marriage at the time of Oligario’s death is irrelevant (according to the Court). 

A rather shocking result for Mary, who did not consider Robert as a family relation after the divorce.  But one wonders if the Court was swayed by the longevity of this marriage.  It lasted from 1968 to 2010 (42 years), and there could have been some relationship between Oligario and Robert that had nothing to do with their legal status as “family” members. 

Sometimes the law and feelings about family members don’t mix well.  A great result for Robert, who unlocks the gates to his share of this estate. 


[1] The Prohibited Transferee Sections of the Probate Code starting as 21350, were replaced effective January 1, 2011 with Probate Codes section 21380.  The new code section continues the old law, with the only real difference being that prohibited transferees can try to overcome the prohibition if they can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the decedent wanted them to have the stated gift.

We spend a good deal of time discussing the shortcomings of individual Trustees.  But there are a few tips that beneficiaries should know to try to make a Trust administration go a little smoother.


1. Patience is a Virtue.  It takes time to properly administer a Trust estate.  Assets have to be gathered together, real property has to be refurbished and sold, personal property has to be collected, jewelry has to be appraised, the list goes on and on.  Trustee’s are not allowed to take too much time to administer the Trust, but it can’t be done overnight either.  So how much time does a Trustee have to administer a Trust?  The legal standard is a “reasonable” amount of time.  But there is no definite definition of “reasonable,” it varies from case to case.

For example, a Trust with a single house in it, that needs to be fixed up a little (but not completely refurbished) and then sold, should have the house listed for sale within 3 or 4 months of the Settlor’s date of death.  The entire Trust administration should be concluded within a year or less. 

If there are other issues that need to be resolved, such as multiple real properties, difficult stocks to sell, or anything else out of the ordinary, then a year to 18 months may be more reasonable.

If it is a complex Trust estate that is subject to Federal Estate Taxes, with multiple properties and complicated partnership, then 18 months to 2 years may be more like it. 

The bottom line is to give the Trustee some room to act.  That doesn’t mean you have to wait forever, but a little patience can go a long way.

2. Information Overload.  Every beneficiary has the right to information regarding the assets of the Trust.  Information requests must be reasonable, however.  Beneficiaries are not entitled to see every bank statement every month.  Some Trustees do share that information, and it’s never a bad idea to do so, but the law does not require it.  What the law does require is sharing information when it is reasonably asked for and providing regular (as in annual) accountings of the Trust activity.

3. Back-seat Driver/Arm-Chair Quarterback.  Beneficiaries are not in control of the Trust.  It may seem odd that you have no say over money and assets that belong to you, but that’s how Trusts work.

The Trustee of a Trust is the legal owner of the Trust property; whereas the beneficiaries are the beneficial owners.  That means the Trustee, and only the Trustee, gets to call the shots on how property is held, invested, etc.  Of course, the Trustee can’t just do whatever he or she wants.  A Trustee must follow the Trust document and must adhere to Trust law under the California Probate Code.  Between the Trust and Trust law, there is a mountain of duties and obligations the Trustee must obey—but that’s the Trustee’s job to figure out, not the beneficiaries. 

4. Open Lines of Communication.  Being a Trustee can be a thankless job because Trustee’s have all of the duties.  While Trustees have a duty to communicate with their beneficiaries, beneficiaries should also try to communicate clearly with the Trustee.  That means being clear about what you want, responding to requests for information from the Trustee, and generally being cooperative regarding Trust business—to the extent it is reasonable to do so.  I’m not saying beneficiaries have to go along with whatever the Trustee is doing, but clearly communicating your goals and desires is important. 

5. Call the Professionals.  Trustees have the right to hire professionals to advise them.  This includes lawyers, accountants, and financial planners—all acceptable advisors that a Trustee can hire and pay for out of the Trust estate.  Of course, the Trustee should also follow the professionals’ advice, which is where many Trustees go wrong.

6. Who’s Your Lawyer?  The trustee’s lawyer is NOT your lawyer.  If the Trustee hires a lawyer, the lawyer represents the Trustee, in his or her capacity as Trustee.  The lawyer does NOT represent the Trust or any of the Trust beneficiaries.  This is a common misconception.  Many beneficiaries believe that if a lawyer represents a “Trust” then that lawyer must represent the beneficiaries too.  Not true.  Lawyers don’t represent Trusts, they represent Trustees.  That may not sound like much of a difference, but legally it’s a huge difference.  Trusts are NOT like corporations, they cannot act independently of their Trustee.  Trust’s act through Trustees, and Trustees can hire lawyers and other professionals to represent them—and only them.  Beneficiaries should keep this in mind whenever they talk to the Trustee or the Trustee’s lawyer.  If a beneficiary wants some independent legal advice, he needs to hire his own lawyer for that.

7. The Written Word.  Document everything you do and say during the course of a Trust administration.  It never hurts to keep notes of what has occurred and what action you have taken in response.  While you hope that these cases don’t wind up in Court, Court action is always possible.  And if that occurs, better to be ready for it by having a clear record of what occurred and when. 

Judges don’t like difficult beneficiaries, and it could make the Trustee look sympathetic if he had to deal with difficult beneficiaries.  Better to hold up your end of the Trust, act reasonably, and let the Trustee’s actions speak for itself—good or bad.  It never hurts to be a better beneficiary.