Articles Posted in Wills & Trusts

At Ginzburg & Bronshteyn, LLP we are dedicated to providing efficient, effective, and affordable solutions to clients involved in conservatorship cases, trust and estate disputes, as well as other types of family law issues. We are here to help you and your loved ones. To discuss your needs and discover your options, consult the Los Angeles incapacity and estate planning attorneys at Ginzburg & Bronshteyn, LLP.

Our firm also handles disputes over the decedent’s intent. For example, when a person dies, they might have named only some, but not all of his or her children in a will. Most likely, the unnamed children would contest the validity of the will, and estate litigation may ensue to determine whether the decedent intended to omit certain children or whether the omission was unintentional. This is but one example of a dispute that can arise in the execution of an estate plan. If you or someone you know is dealing with a dispute over the administration or execution of trust or estate in California, you should contact an experienced trusts and estates litigation attorney to ensure your interests are represented.

Conservatorships, while intended to exist for the benefit of the protected person, can sometimes become complicated and contentious. If you find yourself in a conservatorship that has become legally combative, consult the conservatorship attorneys at Ginzburg & Bronshteyn. Our experienced Los Angeles conservatorship attorneys are here to help

On March 24, 2015, the panel of Probate Judges discussed the current state of Probate Court in Los Angeles County and addressed questions and concerns submitted by members of the Beverly Hills Bar Association. Fortunately six probate judges from the Los Angeles Superior Court – Central District were able to attend the lunch at Lawry’s in Beverly Hills.  This program was presented by the Trust and Wills Section of the Beverly Hills Bar Association.

The Judges present were:

Judge David J. Cowan (Department 79)

Estate of Stoker – filed March 3, 2011, Second District, Div. Six. Cite as 2011 S.O.S. 1274

This case involves two issues under California Law that are seen and dealt with in the Probate Code.

One issue is the required “Notification by Trustee” to all beneficiaries and heirs-at-law upon a trust [or portion thereof] becoming irrevocable [see California Probate Code Section 16061.7].

A brief summary of the recent decision the the California Court of Appeal- In the Third Appellant District Case No. C068747

Drake v. Pinkham filed May 28, 2013, publication ordered June 21, 2013,

Beneficiary’s action to invalidate trust amendments based on lack of capacity and undue influence was barred by laches where the facts alleged by beneficiary were known to her five years before she filed the action, and the delay was necessarily prejudicial because the settlor had died.

A family’s trust dispute got new life when the California Supreme Court reversed an an appellate court ruling, and determined that a group of contingent beneficiaries did, as a matter of law, have standing to sue the trustee of a family trust for breaching his duties by making a large, risky investment in a company that the trustee co-owned. In deciding Estate of Giraldin, the court concluded that, under California law, because the trustee’s actions could harm the contingent beneficiaries and contravene the wishes of the deceased trustor, they had standing to sue.

In 2001, William Giraldin began considering investing $4 million, roughly 2/3 of his wealth, in a technological start-up company created by Patrick Giraldin, his son. Patrick’s twin, Tim, was also a partial owner. Soon thereafter, Bill created a new revocable trust, which essentially replaced the previous revocable trust he established in 1997, naming all of his children as contingent beneficiaries. In one key difference between the trusts, however, Tim, not Bill, served as trustee of the trust. Bill ultimately decided to make the investment, with the funds coming from the trust.

The start-up proved unsuccessful and, by the time Bill died in May 2005, his investment was largely worthless. Four of Tim’s half-siblings sued him, claiming he violated his fiduciary duties to the trust’s beneficiaries. The suit claimed that Tim’s mismanagement deprived Bill’s seven other legal children of the benefit of the trust.

The trial court ruled in favor of the four children. The court concluded that Tim acted to serve his interests, and those of the start-up, at the peril of his father and the trust.

The California Court of Appeal reversed. The court determined that Cal. Prob. Code 15800 made clear that, during Bill’s lifetime, Tim’s duties were to his father alone, not his siblings (as trust beneficiaries). During’s Bill’s lifetime, the Court of Appeal concluded, Tim’s siblings were akin to heirs named in a will, possessing no rights until Bill died and the trust became irrevocable. Thus, the siblings lacked standing to sue for his pre-May 2005 conduct as trustee.

The California Supreme Court disagreed, however. The high court agreed that the siblings could not sue based on alleged financial harm they suffered during Bill’s lifetime, and could not sue while Bill was alive, but concluded that they could assert a claim after Bill’s death, based upon harm to Bill caused by Tim’s actions during Bill’s lifetime. “Because a trustee’s breach of the fiduciary duty owed to the settlor can substantially harm the beneficiaries by reducing the trust’s value against the settlor’s wishes, we conclude the beneficiaries do have standing to sue for a breach of that duty after the settlor has died,” the court wrote.

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A “no contest” clause is an item inserted into many wills and/or trusts to reduce the likelihood that a beneficiary will mount a court challenge to the document. The California legislature modified the statute governing no contest clauses in recent years, attempting to simply the law regarding these provisions. In the process, however, the state’s new statute creates some potential traps for the unwary beneficiary.

Under California law in effect before 2010, will or trust contests were a high-stakes, all-or-nothing proposition. For example, if a woman had a will that left her estate equally to her son and daughter but, shortly before her death and during a visit from her daughter, she created a new will, with a no contest provision, leaving 75% of her assets to the daughter, and 25% to the son, then the son would face a risky dilemma if he contested the new will. If he won, the first will would govern, and he would receive one-half of his mother’s estate; lose, and the no contest clause from the second will would take effect and he would receive nothing.

Finding the penalty of total forfeiture excessively punitive, the legislature changed the law, effective 2010. The new law states that forfeiture clauses are generally not enforceable against challengers if they had probable cause for bringing the action.

Beneficiaries should remain mindful, though, that there are indirect ways to trigger a forfeiture clause, some of which are not necessarily intuitive. In a 2002 case, Estate of Gonzalez, a group of siblings offered their father’s 1992 will for probate, which contained a no contest provision. A fourth sibling, Jorge Gonzalez, submitted for probate a 1998 will. The court concluded that the 1998 will was the result of Jorge’s undue influence, that Jorge knew the will was not valid and, by offering it for probate, he effectively challenged his father’s first will, and did so without probable cause. As a result, the no contest clause within the 1992 will was enforceable and Jorge received nothing from his father’s estate.

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A California appellate court upheld the right of the children of a man’s ex-wife to receive the distributions promised to them in the man’s will and trust. In Estate of Lira, the court rejected a daughter’s argument that her father’s ex-wife’s children were disqualified from inheriting, ruling that the ex-wife’s family was related to the man when he executed his estate plan documents and, therefore, exempt from disqualification.

Oligario Lira married Mary Terrones in 1968. Lira had three children from a prior marriage, and his wife had six. Early in 2008, the wife filed for divorce. Eleven months later, with the divorce still pending, Oligario executed a will and a trust. The documents named Oligario’s three children, as well as three of Mary’s sons, as beneficiaries of his estate, and named Mary’s son, Robert Terrones, personal representative of his will and trustee of his trust. One of Mary’s grandsons, Glenn Terrones, was an attorney and prepared the documents for Oligario. The court granted the divorce early in 2010, and Oligario died five months later.

Lira’s daughter, Mary Ratcliff, petitioned for probate of her father’s estate, stating that her father died intestate, and requesting that the court appoint her to administer the estate. Two months later, Robert filed his own petition, producing the will and asking that the court name him as executor. Lira’s daughter then argued that the law disqualified the Terrones sons from receiving anything under the will or the trust because they were related to the attorney who drafted the documents. Robert countered by contending that, because he and his brothers were related to Oligario when he signed the documents, they were exempt from disqualification.

A trial court, and the California Court of Appeal, agreed with Robert. While Section 21350 of the Probate Code, which the daughter cited, generally bars anyone who is “related by blood or marriage to, is a domestic partner of, is a cohabitant with, or is an employee of, the person who drafted the instrument” from receiving a distribution under that document, Section 21351 carves an exemption for persons related to the transferor by blood or marriage.

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A now-deceased man’s estate planning oversight yielded a dispute that will now be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case of Hillman v. Maretta pits the man’s ex-wife, whom he named, and never replaced, as the death beneficiary on a life insurance policy, and the man’s current wife, who claimed that the ex-wife lost her claim to the money when she and the man divorced.

In 1996, Warren Hillman named Judy Maretta, his wife, as the primary beneficiary on his Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) policy. Two years later, the couple divorced. Hillman married his subsequent wife, Jacqueline, in 2002. Warren and Jacqueline remained married until Warren died in 2008. However, Warren never updated his insurance policy to remove Judy and name a new beneficiary.

Jacqueline filed a claim for the policy benefit, which was nearly $125,000. Judy also filed a claim for the benefit. The money went to the ex-wife, as she remained the named beneficiary under the policy. Jacqueline sued, arguing that, under Virginia law, Warren and Judy’s divorce automatically revoked the beneficiary designation naming Judy. Judy contended, and the Virginia Supreme Court agreed, that the Virginia statute did not control here. The federal statutes governing FEGLI expressly state that the order of precedence for receiving a death benefit gives first priority to “the beneficiary or beneficiaries designated by the employee,” (5 USC 8705(a)) and also that the “provisions of any contract under this chapter which relate to the nature or extent of coverage or benefits (including payments with respect to benefits) shall supersede and preempt any law of any State or political subdivision thereof… to the extent that the law or regulation is inconsistent with the contractual provisions” (5 USC 8709(d)(1).) The Virginia court determined that these federal statutes clearly pre-empted Virginia law and mandated awarding the funds to Judy.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case as a split had emerged over the question, with the Virginia and Alabama high courts, along with the federal 7th Circuit and 11th Circuit appellate courts, ruling that FEGLI’s governing statutes pre-empted state law, but the high courts in Indiana and Mississippi concluding that the federal statutes regarding FEGLI did not pre-empt state law.

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A judge recently approved the sale of the home of former Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith. The proceeds from the sale will go to the late model’s six-year-old daughter, Dannielynn. Many may remember Anna Nicole Smith for her marriage to the late J. Howard Marshall, an oil industry magnate.

According to a local news article, the home sold for $1.3 million, despite being worth approximately $1.8 million at the time of Smith’s death in 2007. The buyer is reportedly Rouzbeh Zoka, trustee of the Rouzbeh Zoka 2012 revocable trust.

Howard K. Stern, Smith’s former lawyer and now executor of her estate, reportedly stated that the sale of the home was “to the advantage of the estate and in the best interest of the interested persons.” The “interested persons” in this case is Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn.

California estate and probate law is on its face relatively straightforward, but can become very complex very quickly. When a person dies, his or her real and personal property form an estate. The estate includes any income, investments, real estate, and possessions of the person who died (known as the “decedent”). The decedent before dying or in a will may name someone–either a person or an entity, such as a bank or charity–to serve as the executor of the estate. In this case, Smith had apparently named her attorney Howard K. Stern as the executor of her estate. The executor is charged with managing the estate’s liabilities and distributing the estate’s assets to the named beneficiaries (in this case, Smith’s daughter). The primary responsibility of distributing the proceeds of the sale of Smith’s home will fall on Stern as executor of her estate.

It can become more complex when there are disputes over the decedent’s intent. For example, when a person dies, they might have named only some, but not all of his or her children in a will. Most likely, the unnamed children would contest the validity of the will, and estate litigation may ensue to determine whether the decedent intended to omit certain children or whether the omission was unintentional. This is but one example of a dispute that can arise in the execution of an estate plan. If you or someone you know is dealing with a dispute over the administration or execution of trust or estate in California, you should contact an experienced trusts and estates litigation attorney to ensure your interests are represented.

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Imagine a scenario where a parent passes away with four children and $400,000 in assets. The parent created a will stating that each child will inherit one-fourth of his estate. That sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, just such a scenario often turns into a long legal fight between siblings. Even in cases of modest wealth, relationships that become strained over an inheritance battle rarely recover.

Although a will can be a useful estate planning tool, it also has many shortcomings. A will is essentially a list of instructions regarding how a deceased person’s property should be distributed. A will generally has little value until an estate enters the probate process. Once an estate has entered probate, a judge will determine how assets are distributed using the will as a guide. Unfortunately, the probate process can be lengthy and expensive. Additionally, private information will likely become public during probate proceedings.

In order to avoid probate, many people set up a revocable trust, a tool that can enable you to transfer ownership of assets without going through a frequently lengthy probate process. Normally, when someone creates a revocable trust, a provision in the document provides that all of the individual’s assets are transferred into the trust upon death. The owner of a revocable trust will also choose a trustee who will manage any assets placed in the trust. A well-planned trust document will provide for possible contingencies and leave little ambiguity that may lead to later disagreements. Although litigation may still arise even after a revocable trust is created, the likelihood of conflict between heirs is lessened.

Another possible legal battle waiting to happen in many families stems from an individual’s unexpected disability or incapacitation. Although older folks tend to worry more frequently about who will make decisions for them in the event of a stroke or other illness, disability from an unexpected accident or other cause is a real risk for many young people. Because of this, everyone should create a living will that outlines what sort of medical treatment to provide in the event of incapacitation and choose a healthcare proxy who will make medical decisions on their behalf. By creating such documents, an individual may have the ability to keep loved ones from battling over their best interests before a judge.

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