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.

 

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

This is Keith A. Davidson from Albertson and Davidson. In this video, I want to talk to you about the differences between Wills and Trusts. A lot of times people think that Wills and Trusts are the same thing, that they’re the same type of documents, and they really aren’t. Wills and Trusts are very different, and so let’s start with a discussion of Wills, and then we’ll talk about Trusts and you can see the differences between the two documents.

Wills are testamentary documents, and what that means is they only come into effect, they only actually are created, upon somebody’s death. Now you go ahead and create the Will and write it down and sign it prior to death, but it doesn’t operate until after death. For Wills, there’s a lot of what we call formalities that you have to follow.

To have a valid Will, you have to have it in writing. It has to be signed by the person who’s creating the Will, and a typewritten Will has to be witnessed by two witnesses, or it has to be in the testator’s own handwriting. That’s what we call a holographic Will. If you don’t meet those formalities when you create a Will, then the Will simply isn’t going to be valid. That’s something that is unique to Will’s. You’re not going to have that with Trust.

After somebody passes away, a Will cannot operate over their assets until you take that Will to court and you have the court admit the Will to probate. That’s where the court decides whether the Will is valid or not, and until the Will is admitted to probate, nothing can happen with that Will. You can’t administer it. You can’t manage the decedents assets. It has to go through this court process in order to operate and then the Will ultimately will dictate how the assets pass out of probate and to the beneficiaries who are intended to receive them. And that’s generally how a Will works.

A Trust is very different because most people create what we call a living Trust. In legal terms, we would call that an inter-vivos Trust, meaning that it’s created during your lifetime and it actually operates during your lifetime. So the Trustee of your living Trust can manage your assets, can make management decisions over those assets, and it operates even if you lose capacity. That’s different from a Will because the Will never helps you if you lose capacity, but a Trust does. And then after you passed the Trustee can administer that Trust without having to go to court.

Trust don’t require any court oversight in order to be administered. And in order to create a Trust, all you have to do is have something in writing and signed. You don’t technically even need to have it notarized, although most Trusts are notarized and they probably should be, but that’s not a legal requirement that they be notarized.

Trusts tend to be a lot more flexible because you can leave your assets to your children or your beneficiaries, and you can have all sorts of flexibility in how you leave your assets to them. So, you can leave something in a child’s Trust that holds their assets until a certain age, or you can leave something to your grandchild and also hold that until they reach a certain age. There’s all sorts of flexibility that you can build into your Trust that is much harder to do under a Will because the Will has to go to court and through the probate process in order to be administered.

So that is some differences between a Will and a Trust, and I think you’ll see that they’re very different documents.

I get calls every week from California Trust, Last Will, and Estate beneficiaries complaining that they can’t get their brother or sister, who is the Trustee and Executor of their parents’ estate plan, to provide copies of the parents’ estate plan after the parents have died.

I usually suggest the following. First, send a letter to the Trustee and Executor politely requesting the entire Trust, including amendments, and Last Will for both parents. Include the following language in the letter: 

A.         Please Provide True Copy of California Will

Under California Probate Code Section 8200, you, as Executor of Mom’s and Dad’s estates, are required to deliver mom’s and dad’s Last Wills to the County Superior Court where mom and dad died within 30 days of mom’s and dad’s respective deaths. Please note, if I am damaged by your failure to deliver moms’ and dad’s Last Wills to the Superior Court you will be liable for my damages. (See Probate Code section 8200(b).)

As you are required to deliver the Wills to the Superior Court, you should have no objection in providing me with true copies at this time. If you do not provide me with a true copy of the Wills I will have no choice but to file a petition in the Probate Court requesting the Court to order you to provide me with true copies of the Wills. Please note, if I’m forced to file a petition, I will request that the Court order you to pay for the attorneys’ fees and costs associated with my petition. I hope I am not required to file a petition and you will simply provide me with true copies of the Wills on or before DATE. 

B.         Please Provide True Copy of California Trust

Under California Probate Code Section 16061.7, you, as Trustee of Mom’s and Dad’s Trust, are required to provide all beneficiaries of the Trust and all of Mom’s and Dad’s heirs with a true copy of the Trust documents, including any amendments, 60 days after Mom’s and Dad’s respective deaths.

As you are required to provide Mom’s and Dad’s Trust after 60 days of their respective deaths you should have no objection in providing me with true copies of the Trust, and any amendments, at this time. If you do not provide me with a true copy of Mom’s and Dad’s Trust, and any amendments, I will have no choice but to file a petition in the Probate Court requesting the Court to order you to provide me with a true copy. Please note, if I’m forced to file a petition, I will request that the Court order you to pay for the attorneys’ fees and costs associated with my petition. I hope I am not required to file a petition and you will simply provide me, as an heir and/or beneficiary of the Trust, a true copy of the Trust, and any amendments, on or before DATE.

If you include the above-referenced language in your letter to the Trustee, more times than not you will be successful in getting the Trustee to turn over the Trust and Will documents.

If the Trustee still refuses to provide the Will and Trust, then you must seek help from the Probate Court to force the Trustee and Executor to hand over these documents. I will explain in a future post how you get the Court’s help for obtaining these documents. 

Nobody Likes Motions to Compel:

 Plaintiff attorneys don’t like them because they aren’t paid an hourly fee to draft them; Defense attorneys don’t like them because they know how effective these motions are at slicing through their procedural gamesmanship; and Judges don’t like them because these motions take up valuable court time with juvenile spats between grown adults—lawyers—who simply can’t agree on anything.

 Motions to Compel are Necessary:

 But Motions to Compel are necessary and required for most cases. Filing a motion to compel immediately does three things:

 Put Defense Attorneys on Notice:

 First, it puts the defense attorney on notice that you are not like some plaintiff attorneys who simply take cases in bulk and settle for pennies on the dollar. These types of attorneys generally do not bring motions to compel and live with the responses and documents the defense attorney chooses to give them. But filing a well-drafted motion to compel informs your adversary that you are not like some plaintiff attorneys.

 Dictate the Relationship Between Yourself and the Defense Attorney:

 Second, by filing the motion to compel, you dictate the relationship between yourself and the defense attorney. You are establishing that you require the defense to provide valid responses, as well as all non-privileged documents, pertaining to the case. Ironically, it’s been my experience that the relationship with defense counsel generally improves after filing several motions to compel.

 Establish That You Believe in Your Client’s Case:

 Third, by filing the motion to compel, you establish that you believe in your client’s case and are willing to put your valuable (and finite) time and resources into helping your client’s cause. Attorneys that don’t believe in their client’s case are unlikely to bring motions to compel. And defense attorneys know that a plaintiff’s attorney is unlikely to take a case to trial if he/she does not believe in it. 

 The Outcome:

 In many cases, once you’ve filed the motion to compel, the defense attorney will call you a week or so before the motion hearing date, concede, and ask if you will withdraw the motion if they provide the answers or documents you are seeking.

 But in other cases, the defense will press its luck to see what the Court will say about your motion. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you win or lose your motion. (I’ve lost some motions I was sure to win, and won others I was sure to lose. There’s no rhyme or reason to it). What matters is that you file the motion. Once filed, you establish that you are a good lawyer who requires proper responses from the defense—and, now, you’ll likely begin to get them. Try it out in your current or next case. See for yourself how well it works. 

I’ve blogged before about using the concept of undue influence to overturn a California Will or Trust.  But knowing the definition of undue influence is only the first step.  To make the concept of undue influence useful, you have to know how to prove the existence of undue influence in a Court of law.  That can be trickier than it sounds.  Let’s walk though the primary options for proving undue influence in California: 

Under California law, undue influence consists of:

An Example of Undue Influence: 

It is usually easy to spot undue influence. For example, Jane has three children, namely, John, Jerry, and Jack. Jane is living with John at the end of her life, and relies on John for her daily living needs. John does not like his brothers Jerry and Jack. Six weeks before Jane dies, John drives his mother to an attorney to change her California Will or Trust, which disinherits Jerry and Jack. Now John goes from getting one-third of his mother’s Will or Trust to getting 100 percent. The question: Did John exercise undue influence over Jane? Most likely, yes. But how do you prove undue influence under California law? 

How to Prove Undue Influence under California Law: 

There are two primary ways to prove undue influence under California law—by either (i) shifting the burden of proof to John, in the example above, so he then has to prove an absence of undue influence, or (ii) by Jerry or Jack proving directly that John exercised undue influence over their mother. If at all possible, it is best to shift the burden to John to prove he did not exercise undue influence over Jane because it can be very difficult to prove the absence of something. If you don’t have facts that shift the burden of proof to John, then Jerry and Jack will have the burden of proving the existence of undue influence directly.

 How to Shift the Burden of Proof in an Undue Influence Case:

How do you shift the burden of proof to John so that he carries the burden to prove he did not exercise undue influence over Jane? Under California law there is a presumption of undue influence that arises if you can establish three facts:

  • Confidential Relationship: Jerry and Jack must prove that John had a “confidential relationship” with Jane, which can consist of John being Jane’s trustee, or agent under a power of attorney, or conservator, or perhaps, simply being Jane’s son.
  • Active Participation: John must have “actively participated” in the preparation or execution of the Will or Trust.
  • Undue Benefit: John must receive an “undue benefit” by way of the new Will or Trust.  

You can prove each of these facts where John (i) is the Executor or Trustee of Jane’s Will or Trust, (ii) arranged to have an attorney draft the new Will or Trust for Jane to sign, and (iii) where John’s interest in the Jane’s Will or Trust increases from one-third to a higher amount. 

Once these facts are proven, there is a presumption that John exercised undue influence over Jane causing her to create the new Will or Trust; and the burden of proof shifts to John to prove the absence of undue influence, which is not easy for John to do under this fact scenario. Essentially John has to prove a negative—i.e. that undue influence did not occur. 

 How to Prove Undue Influence Directly:

If you can’t prove facts shifting the burden of proof to John, you must prove undue influence directly. Circumstantial evidence is enough to prove undue influence. Here are the most likely facts you need to prove undue influence directly:

 Disinheriting a child: Provisions that are unnatural, cutting off from any substantial bequests the natural objections of the decedent’s bounty. When Jane disinherits Jerry and Jack, that is disinheriting her children, an unnatural act, which can indicate undue influence.

 Contradicting decedent’s former estate plan: Dispositions at variance with the decedent’s intentions, expressed before the document’s execution. If Jane had a previous Will or Trust that treated her children equally, but a new Will or Trust (or Amendment) contradicts the former Will or Trust (or Amendment), this can add to the conclusion that Jane was unduly influenced.

 Opportunity to control decedent: Relations existing between the chief beneficiaries and the decedent that afforded the former an opportunity to control the testamentary act. If Jane relied on John for her daily living needs, this can add to the conclusion that Jane was unduly influenced.

 Poor mental and physical condition: A testator whose mental and physical conditions are such as to permit a subversion of her freedom of will; and if there is evidence the testator had a weakened state of mind it is easier to demonstrate the pressure from another overcame the testator’s free will.

 Sudden negative shift in attitude: Under California law, courts may infer that Jane’s sudden negative shift in attitude toward Jerry and Jack was caused by John’s poisoning Jane’s mind because the court can find no other rational explanation.

 Decedent’s advanced age: A Will or Trust creator of advanced age at the time a document is signed adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced.

 History of mental deficits: A Will or Trust creator with a history of mental deficits adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced. California Probate code section 811 outlines the likely areas of mental deficits.

 History of Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease: A Will or Trust creator with a history of Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced.

Testator under conservatorship: A Will or Trust creator that is under a court ordered conservatorship adds to the conclusion the testator was unduly influenced. 

The more of these facts you can establish, the easier it is to prove undue influence directly.

There you have it—a big picture view of how to prove undue influence cases under California law. In future blog posts, I will treat in further detail (i) the burden shift for undue influence cases, and (ii) proving undue influence directly.

An interesting case, Diaz v. Bukey, was decided on May 10, 2011 by California’s Second Appellate District pertaining to the issue of whether a mandatory arbitration clause in a trust applies to a trust beneficiary. Justice Steven Z. Perren, writing for a unanimous Court, held that the beneficiary of a trust who did not agree to arbitrate disputes arising under the trust may not be compelled to do so. And this decision makes sense. Under California law, only parties to an arbitration contract may enforce it or be required to arbitrate.

The Case Facts. In Diaz, parents set up a trust, which included an arbitration provision that required all disputes arising in connection with the parents’ trust, including disputes between a trustee and a beneficiary, to be settled by arbitration. After the parents’ deaths, a trust beneficiary made a filing with the probate court demanding an accounting from the trustee of the Diaz Trust. In response, the trustee filed a demurrer (a request to have the beneficiary’s filing summarily thrown out of court without a trial) and a petition asking the probate court to order the trust beneficiary to arbitrate the dispute. The trust beneficiary opposed the demurrer and the petition to compel arbitration, basing his argument on the facts that he had not agreed to nor was he a signatory to the arbitration provision in the Diaz Trust. The probate court agreed with the trust beneficiary overruling the trustee’s demurrer and denying the trustee’s petition to force arbitration. The probate court reasoned that the beneficiary was not contractually bound to submit disputes with the trustee to arbitration. The Court of Appeal agreed with the probate court and affirmed its decision.  

The Parents’ Intent. After reading Diaz, I thought about the parents “intent” being defeated by legal rules they likely were not aware of when they created the trust. All the parents knew, at the time they created the trust, was that they wanted to require all disputes pertaining to the trust to be decided at a private arbitration, rather than in the probate court. The idea behind this is that generally arbitration costs less than a full blown trial in the probate court. In any event, the parents’ intent, as reflected in their trust, was to require less formal adjudication of all disputes pertaining to their trust. Clearly that did not happen in Diaz.

Possible Solutions. How should attorneys draft arbitration clauses in trusts after Diaz? I think arbitration provisions could still be used in trusts and made enforceable against non-signatory beneficiaries after Diaz. But how? By requiring the beneficiary to agree to arbitration as a condition of receiving their gift under the Trust.  For example, if one additional sentence had been added to the arbitration provision in Diaz, I believe the beneficiary would have agreed to the arbitration. That sentence is:

“If any beneficiary under this trust refuses to agree to arbitrate any and all disputes pertaining to the trust, then that beneficiary’s (or beneficiaries’) distribution shall not be made, and that beneficiary lose any and all interests in the trust estate and shall not share in any portion of the trust estate.”

Would a trust beneficiary, who did not sign the arbitration agreement in the trust, be willing to risk an inheritance by not agreeing to binding arbitration? Not likely.

Trust and Will lawsuits often provide different paths to the same destination. My client, a trust beneficiary, recently filed a lawsuit against a trustee of a California trust for financial elder abuse, and at the same time sued for undue influence to set aside the Trust amendment created at the hands of the Trustee/Abuser. In this case the Trustee ended up with a significant portion of the Trust and my client was effectively disinherited.

The Trustee, hoping for an easy out, tried to convince the Court that the elder abuse claim should be dismissed summarily (called a demurrer) because the claim was based on a transfer by Trust, and in his opinion, the abuse of the elder did not actually occur until the trust creators died and their Trust became irrevocable (the “taking argument”). His claim was that the beneficiary cannot use the same undue influence facts to (1) overturn the Trust amendment, and (2) sue for financial elder abuse.  In other words, he may have been an undue influencer for purposes of the Trust amendment, but not for purposes of financial elder abuse.

But California law disagrees. Specifically, there are three different ways in which financial abuse may be pleaded under the Elder Abuse Act found at Welfare and Institutions Code section 15610.30(a), which states a person is guilty of financial elder abuse if they take property of an elder for wrongful use, or with intent to defraud, or by way of undue influence. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15610.30, subdivisions (a)(1), (a)(2), and (a)(3).) Thus, the act of undue influence used to overturn a California Trust (or in this case a Trust amendment) can also be used to establish a claim for financial elder abuse. Further, the Elder Abuse Act defines a “taking” to include the receipt of assets by a “testamentary instrument”, which includes California trusts and wills. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15610.30(c).)

Does this mean my client would get double damages, one with the Trust set aside and another in the amount of the property taken? No. But it does mean my client can proceed on both claims and take full damages under either one. For example, the elder abuse statute allows for punitive damages and attorneys’ fee whereas the Trust set aside claim does not.

The trial court heard oral argument on the demurrer on May 5, 2011. After hearing oral argument, the trial court was persuaded that the financial elder abuse claim could go forward based on undue influence as it was properly pleaded in my client’s lawsuit, and was supported by the Elder Abuse Act.

The next time you see facts showing a “garden-variety” trust or will contest, think about whether those facts also support a claim based on financial elder abuse.

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.  

Fifty years ago, most assets passed from an individual who died to his or her family by way of Probate (by Will or Intestacy both of which require Probate). Probate is a strict, expensive and time-consuming Court process that must be completed before assets can ultimately being transferred to family members.

But today, we own assets differently than we did fifty years ago. Most of us have bank accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance, and perhaps Living Trusts. These four types of assets (or financial vehicles) constitute the core of the so-called “Nonprobate Transfers” or “Will Substitutes”, meaning each of these assets pass outside Probate if properly designated.

California law expressly allows these Nonprobate Transfer assets to pass outside the probate process, even though these assets do not comply with the formal requirements for execution of a Will (read more about the Formalities and Intentionalities of Will creation.) Accordingly, individuals can rely on beneficiary designation forms that identify who gets his or her bank accounts, life insurance, and retirement accounts at his or her death without regard to what a Will states. As a result, with proper planning, an individual’s entire estate can pass at death to his or her family members outside of the Probate system. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons why estate planners created Revocable Trust—to avoid Probate altogether.

Let’s take an example, Stewart owns the following assets:

  • a home worth $400,000;
  • a rental property worth $350,000;
  • two bank accounts totaling $60,000;
  • a retirement account totaling $500,000; and
  • life insurance with a death benefit of $1 million.

Stewart’s total estate is worth $2,310,000. If Stewart’s estate passes by a Will or Intestacy, it must go through the Probate system. The attorney’s fees on this size of an estate would result in fees of approximately $40,000 (read more on how Probate fees are calculated.)

On the other hand, Stewart’s entire estate could pass by way of Nonprobate Transfers (also known as Will Substitutes), as follows:

  • Stewart’s (i) home and (ii) rental property are owned by his Living Trust, which designates the beneficiaries of his home and rental property.
  • Stewart’s (i) bank accounts, (ii) retirement account, and (iii) life insurance have “beneficiary designation” cards filled out designating who gets these assets on Stewart’s death.

Now Stewart’s entire estate passes outside of the Probate Court process.

Ultimately, these types of Nonprobate Transfers (or Will Substitutes) function as a private system of transferring assets at death—usually requiring less time, fewer rules, and a lower cost than Probate requires.