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Notable Recent Case Law

Sterling v. Sterling, 242 Cal. App. 4th 185 (2015):
Donald Sterling appealed probate court orders concerning the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, an NBA team and a major asset of the Sterling Family Trust.  The Court of Appeal made three key findings/rulings: First, it found Donald Sterling was properly removed as trustee pursuant to the terms of the trust, which was supported by evidence presented by physicians as to his lack of capacity and his inability to manage his finances and withstand undue influence; second, the court found that Probate Code section 1310(b) authorized the probate court to instruct the trustee (Rochelle Sterling) to sell the Clippers notwithstanding the stay on appeal of the probate court’s order, because the risk of loss to the trust estate if the sale fell through was extraordinary or imminent given the $2 billion purchase price as compared with other offers and valuations; and, third, the court held that it was not improper for the trustee to wind up the affairs of the trust, even after Donald revoked the trust.  (The trustee’s winding up of the trust included seeking the best possible result for the beneficiaries in selling the Clippers, in accordance with her duty of loyalty as trustee.)

Doolittle v. Exchange Bank
, 241 Cal. App. 4th 529 (2015):
Susan Doolittle filed petitions to invalidate her mother’s restated trust on grounds of lack of capacity, undue influence, and financial elder abuse.  The trust’s no contest clause directed the trustee to defend a contest at the expense of the trust estate.  Susan and the trustee, Exchange Bank, filed competing petitions for instructions to address the trustee’s authority to use trust funds to pay for litigation expenses.  The trial court found that the defense directive is not a no contest clause, and authorized the trustee to use trust funds to defend against Susan’s petitions. 

The appellate court affirmed.  The Doolittle trust specifically directed the trustee to defend against claims challenging the validity of the trust at the expense of the trust.  The appellate court determined that since the clause on defense of claims was not a no contest clause itself, it was not necessary to first make a determination that Susan’s claims were asserted without merit or probable cause before it granted authorization for fees to defend the trust.  Assuming Susan has probable cause for her claims, the residue will be reduced by defense costs.  If the rule were otherwise, there would be no means to implement the trustor’s intentions until after the litigation is adjudicated, which would render the defense directive meaningless. (However, a contesting party still may seek a preliminary injunction in such circumstances: The court has authority to enjoin the use of trust assets to defend against a contest, upon a sufficient showing of the contestant's likelihood of success.)

Conservatorship of Kevin A., 240 Cal. App. 4th 1241 (2015):
Counsel’s attempted waiver of jury trial in conservatorship action is ineffective without proposed conservatee’s consent.

Conservatorship of Moore, 240 Cal. App. 4th 1101 (2015):
Probate court did not abuse its discretion by surcharging retained counsel for an elderly person suffering from dementia, where the attorney neither safeguarded the well-being of the person nor the person's financial resources, and where he put his own financial interests ahead of the interests of his client.

Estate of Duke, 61 Cal. 4th 871 (2015):
Rule that extrinsic evidence may never be introduced to reform an unambiguous will is abrogated. An unambiguous will may be reformed to conform to the testator's intent if clear and convincing evidence establishes that the will contains a mistake in the testator's expression of intent at the time the will was drafted, and also establishes the testator's actual specific intent at the time the will was drafted.

Siegel v. Fife, 234 Cal. App. 4th 988 (2015):
Conservator for trust settlor filed petition seeking approval of sale of real property belonging to trust (conservatee’s prior residence), alleging it was necessary for the benefit of settlor, who was incurring substantial expenses while residing in assisted living. Designated [specific] beneficiary of the trust’s real property objected, arguing the trust’s residuary property must be sold first, preserving specifically bequested property for the ultimate beneficiaries. The appellate court held the probate court did not abuse its discretion in ordering that the house be sold for the settlor’s (conservatee’s) benefit, and the trustee was not required to sell residuary gifts prior to selling the specifically bequested house.  

Bounds v. Superior Court, 229 Cal. App. 4th 468 (2014):
Prospective purchasers' alleged acts of procuring trustee's signature on multiple documents to sell the property used as the place of business of a corporation held by the trust at a discount, and taking the position that they had the right to buy the property under trustee's agreement, were sufficient to establish a “taking” of the property under the Elder Abuse Act, even though the property remained in the trust's possession and the agreement was not performed, since the trust's duty to disclose the dispute over the property impaired the trust's ability to sell it for fair market value or to use it as security to obtain a loan on reasonable and commercially acceptable terms. Thus, to allege a “taking” of a property right under the Act, it is sufficient to plead that an elder has entered into an unconsummated agreement which significantly impairs the value of the elder's property; the agreement need not have been performed, and title need not have been conveyed. 

Donkin v. Donkin, 58 Cal. 4th 412 (2013):
Under the newer statutory scheme governing enforceability of no contest clauses, the clauses only are enforceable when a beneficiary's proposed action is covered by one of the three specified categories of contest outlined in Prob. Code § 21311 (as further defined in § 21310).  (Most commonly, clauses only will be enforced against beneficiaries’ “direct contests” as defined in § 21310, when brought without probable cause.)

Bridgeman v. Allen, 219 Cal. App. 4th 288 (2013):
Statute providing for extensions of limitation periods upon service by mail does not apply to extend the time within which to contest a trust; the 120-period referenced in Prob. Code § 16061.8 (as triggered by notice under § 16061.7) commences upon deposit of the required notice in the mail.

Beckwith v. Dahl, 205 Cal. App. 4th 1039 (2012):
California recognizes the tort of “IIEI” – intentional interference with expected inheritance. To state a claim for intentional interference with an expected inheritance, a plaintiff must allege five distinct elements: (1) an expectancy of an inheritance, (2) proof amounting to a reasonable degree of certainty that the bequest or devise would have been in effect at the time of the death of the testator if there had been no such interference, (3) that the defendant had knowledge of the plaintiff's expectancy of inheritance and took deliberate action to interfere with it, (4) that the interference was conducted by independently tortious means, and (5) that the plaintiff was damaged by the defendant's interference.

Andersen v. Hunt, 196 Cal. App. 4th 722 (2011):
The level of capacity required to execute a relatively simple trust document necessarily is the same as that required to execute a will or codicil, rather than the "different, higher standard of mental functioning" required to execute a complex trust. Thus, when determining whether to invalidate a less complex trust instrument due to a trustor's alleged lack of capacity, courts should evaluate the trustor's capacity under the less stringent rules of testamentary capacity.

King v. Johnston, 178 Cal. App. 4th 1488 (2009):
A trust beneficiary has independent standing to sue third parties who participated in a breach of trust with the former trustee -- notwithstanding the subsequent appointment of a successor trustee. (In other words, standing to bring an action against such third parties is not exclusively limited to the successor trustee.)

Gdowski v. Gdowski, 175 Cal. App. 4th 128 (2009):
A protective order under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (i.e., an elder abuse restraining order) may issue on the basis of evidence of past abuse, only, without any particularized showing that the wrongful acts will be continued or repeated. (Moreover, the past abuse need only be demonstrated by a preponderance of evidence, rather than by clear and convincing evidence.)

Estate of Bennett, 163 Cal. App. 4th 1303 (2008):
Absent a stipulation, parties in contested probate matters are entitled to an evidentiary hearing (trial) on the merits; refusal to allow such a hearing consitutes reversible error.

In re Estate of Odian
, 145 Cal. App. 4th 152 (2006):
Paid in-home caregiver provided social services (cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping) to decedent, and therefore was a care custodian presumptively disqualified from benefiting from decedent's trust or will. (Probate Code § 21350(a)(6)).

Bernard v. Foley, 39 Cal.4th 794 (2006):
The personal friends of a decedent who had rendered extensive services (including health services) to her during the last few months of her life were deemed "care custodians," and therefore were presumptively disqualified (Probate Code § 21350, et seq.) from benefiting from decedent's amended trust executed three days before her death.

Tunstall v. Wells, 144 Cal.App.4th 554 (2006):
A testamentary trust's "no contest clause" providing that one beneficiary's contest voided other non-contesting beneficiaries' bequests (along with the contestant's bequest) did not violate public policy.

In re Conservatorship of Hume, 140 Cal. App. 4th 1385 (2006):
The burden of proof for objections to inventories and accountings in conservatorship proceedings is on the party objecting to appraisal, not on the conservator.

In re Estate of Rossi,138 Cal. App. 4th 1325 (2006):
An applicant's failure to attach his/her proposed pleading to a Probate Code § 21320 application (for determination that a proposed action would not violate a given no contest clause) is not fatal to court's jurisdiction.

Zwirn v. Schweizer, 134 Cal. App. 4th 1153 (2005):
A purported "creditor's claim" by the nephew of a decedent's late husband that decedent and her husband told him and others that when both died, he would receive 50 percent of their assets (i.e., alleging decedent breached an oral contract with her husband to that effect by revising her estate plan after his death to favor her own blood relatives) constituted a will contest within meaning of no-contest clause of decedent's will.

Terry v. Conlan, 131 Cal. App. 4th 1445 (2005):
The award of fees to a trustee's attorney (payable from trust proceeds) was an abuse of discretion where trustee had not remained neutral in litigation concerning management of trust, but rather had consistently favored her own interests and those of some beneficiaries over those of other beneficiaries.

David v. Hermann, 129 Cal. App. 4th 672 (2005):
An older sister successfully petitioned for invalidation of her mother's trust (and amendment) based on a younger sister's acts of fraud and undue influence.

Osornio v. Weingarten, 124 Cal. App. 4th 304 (2004):
An estate planning attorney owed a duty of care to a non-client prospective will beneficiary, who was testator's care custodian, to advise and assist testator concerning approaches for overcoming the statutory presumptive disqualification of care custodians as donees (California Probate Code § 21350 et seq.); the attorney therefore may be held liable by a non-client for negligence in failing to advise testator of statutory consequences and in failing to refer testator to independent counsel for advice and preparation of certificate of independent review.

Covenant Care, Inc. v. Superior Court, 32 Cal. 4th 771 (2004):
Procedural prerequisites to seeking punitive damages in an action for damages arising out of professional negligence of a health care provider do not apply to punitive damage claim alleging elder abuse under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act.

Delaney v. Baker, 20 Cal.4th 23 (1999):
A health care provider who engages in reckless neglect of an elder adult is subject to heightened remedies available under California's Elder Abuse Act (EADACPA), and cannot invoke the typical restrictions limiting remedies against health care providers.