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Hi, this is Stewart Albertson with Albertson & Davidson and I want to talk to you just briefly about three important sets of documents that we need to get quickly in any type of trust or will contest.  So this happens when a client has already shown up and hired a lawyer.  They’ve already filed their trust contest or their will contest and now the question is what documents do we need to begin the case?  To begin our discovery, to begin strategizing how we’re going to overturn the trust or the will that is a product of undue influence or lack of capacity.

And these come down to three subpoenas and they should go out quickly.  You want to get these documents quickly, to make sure you get the full set of documents, and then you want to have the right people review them once you have them so they can help shape your case going forward, help shape your discovery and, hopefully, shape a successful outcome in invalidating a trust or a will that is the product of undue influence or lack of capacity.

The first set of documents that we want to subpoena right away are from the estate planning attorney.  So the estate planning attorney who drafted the trust or the will or both, we want to get a letter to them immediately telling them to safeguard their file and they can be accept – expecting a subpoena.  Once they receive that subpoena, they have a short time to respond and most estate planning attorneys will send us their files so that we can review them to see what were the circumstances around the creation of the trust or the will.

Sometimes, these attorneys though, they decide they don’t want to send the file and that’s not a problem.  Because then we can file a motion to compel, is what we call it, file that in court and we’ll get a judge to order them to give us the documents.  In many cases, once we file this motion to compel, the estate planning attorney will agree and send over the files.  So that’s the first set of documents you must get in a trust and will contest – and the sooner, the better!

The second set of documents will be the medical records and these are rich – especially if the decedent had multiple providers.  So you want to subpoena out to every single medical provider that you are aware of.  Once you have the first set of medical records, there’ll be other doctors, other hospitals, other medical providers that you’ll in those medical records.  In many cases, neurologists and those are really good medical records to get – so you’ll want to send out subsequent subpoenas for those documents as well.  Most big medical providers are very good at responding to subpoenas and in short order, if you give them a subpoena that’s well drafted and it details exactly what you’re looking for, you will have medical records that you can review to look for things such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and other mental/cognitive deficits that may have impacted the decedent at the time that the will or trust was created that you’re alleging was the product of undue influence of lack of capacity.

Finally, the last set of records are the financial records, and they’re also rich.  Especially if there’s a wrongdoer who did exercise undue influence over your mom or dad before they passed away.  This person generally can’t wait to get their hands on the money until the person dies, so they get their hands on the money during lifetime and they start taking a lot of cash withdrawals from the ATM, they’ll write checks to themselves calling them cash.  They may even sign them for the decedent, your mom or your father, and take this money and start spending it, using it for whatever it is they want to use it for.

So once you file the trust or will contest, you want to jump quickly on these three sets of documents.  Once you have them, they’re going to go a long way in getting you to a good settlement, or you’re going to be able to prove at the time of trial that, in fact, undue influence or lack of capacity did take  place in the creation of the will and the trust.

The most important interrogatory in California is Form Interrogatory 15.1. Propound it; meet and confer on it; file motions to compel on it. Make them give you their facts, witnesses, and documents supporting their denials and affirmative defenses. Form Interrogatory 15.1 is the great equalizer in California trust and probate litigation.

I’m still amazed when defense attorneys direct their clients not to answer my questions during a deposition where no privilege exists. In other words, the defense attorney simply assumes the role of judge and decides what questions their client will and will not answer. Of course, the defense attorney instructs their client not to answer any damaging questions, even where no privilege (i.e. attorney-client, etc.) applies.

When this happens in my depositions, I request the court reporter to mark the record in anticipation of bringing a motion to compel the deponent to answer my valid questions at a future deposition. For my motion to compel I rely primarily on Stewart v. Colonial Western Agency, Inc. (2001) 87 Cal.App.4th 1006.  

In Stewart, the defense attorney repeatedly directed his client not to answer questions at deposition on the ground that they were not calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. The plaintiff’s attorney, in response, filed a motion to compel further answers with the court. At the hearing, the judge remarked to the defense attorney, as follows:

So you’re the Mr. Wolfe that sat in the deposition and instructed the witness not to answer questions because you didn’t think they were relevant. Well that’s not your role. You are ordered not to instruct the witness not to answer a question during any deposition in this case unless the matter is privileged. The proper procedure is to adjourn the deposition and move for protective order. You don’t assume the role of judge and instruct the witness not to answer a question in a deposition. That is a huge no-no. (Stewart at p. 1101.)

The Court then ordered the defense attorney to pay sanctions to the plaintiff’s attorney in the amount of $2,400.

The defense attorney didn’t leave well enough alone. He appealed the trial court’s $2,400 sanction. The court of appeal quickly dispatched the defense attorney’s appeal holding that deponents are not to be prevented by their attorneys form answering a question unless it pertains to privileged matters or the deposing attorney’s conduct has reached a stage where suspension of the deposition is warranted. (Stewart at 1015.) The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

The next time any attorney orders their client not to answer a question at deposition where no privilege exists, point out the holding in Stewart on the record as a meet and confer, and then you’ll have a slam dunk motion to compel if the attorney continues to direct their client to not answer.

California Form Interrogatory 15.1 (an “interrogatory” is just a question) is the most important interrogatory to serve on your opposing party in a lawsuit. And the law requires they answer it fully and completely. Yet, so many attorneys refuse to answer the question properly.

A typical use of 15.1 follows:

You file a Trust Contest or a Will Contest (or any other type of lawsuit) alleging three causes of action: (1) Undue Influence, (2) Lack of Capacity, and (3) Financial Elder Abuse. The opposing party files an answer to the Trust Contest or Will Contest denying most, or all, of your allegations, and on top of that includes 15 affirmative defenses (an affirmative defense, if proven by the opposing party, operates to defeat your claims even if the facts supporting the claim are true).

The opposing party’s denials and affirmative defenses must ultimately be tried, which can make for a long, costly and confusing trial.  But what if the denials and affirmative defenses could be trimmed down before trial?  That’s the purpose of 15.1—you can narrow the issues, and force the opposing party to show their cards—factual cards—before trial. Once you narrow the issues in a case, you are able to clearly and forcefully present the true facts of the case at trial, which generally equals a win for you.

How does 15.1 do this? 15.1 requires the opposing party to provide all facts, all persons, and all documents that support (1) their denials, and (2) their affirmative defenses. In other words, for each denial of a material allegation in your lawsuit (i.e., Trust Contest or Will Contest) the opposing party must (1) identify all facts supporting each denial, (2) identify all witnesses (including their names, addresses, and phone numbers) who can testify about facts supporting each denial, and (3) identify all documents (or things) (including the name, address and phone number of the person who has each document) supporting each denial. Likewise, the opposing party must identify all facts, witnesses, and documents that support each and every affirmative defense (all 15 of them in the case presented above—that’s a lot of work).

To date, I have never received a proper response from an opposing party to 15.1. I generally follow up the opposing party’s response with a required “meet and confer” letter articulating how they must respond to 15.1. If the opposing party refuses to supplement their improper response I generally file a motion with the court requiring that they properly respond to 15.1. Any time I have filed a motion with the Court on 15.1, the Court has granted my motion and ordered the other side to respond. I have even received monetary sanctions against the opposing parties. So beware, when 15.1 comes your way, especially from my firm, it must be answered.

If you have questions, or would like to receive a form copy of my motion to compel for 15.1, please contact me.