Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What Can Happen When Beneficiaries Fight Sale Of Asset Or Proposed Distribution In Bad Faith?

A recent California Court of Appeal decision serves as a reminder that beneficiaries need to consider the downside if they decide to oppose the sale of an asset and proposed distribution. In other words, beneficiaries need to analyze whether their opposition to a proposed sale or distribution is "objectively" in "good faith."
An experienced probate litigation attorney, trust and estate attorney or beneficiary attorney can often help beneficiaries see the "objective" viewpoint. Sometimes, however, emotions and long-standing disputes get in the beneficiaries' way of seeing what is best for the estate.

In December 2009, the California Court of Appeal published the decision of Rudnick v. Rudnick, 09 S.O.S. 6928. A copy of the decision can be found at the court website: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/F056587.PDF

In this case, three of the beneficiaries of the Rudnick Estates Trust (RET), Philip Rudnick, Robert Rudnick, and Milton Rudnick, hold a minority interest in RET. We will call these three the "minority beneficiaries." Oscar Rudnick is the trustee of the RET.

The RET was created in 1965 by the beneficiaries of 11 separate trusts, which each owned an undivided interest in various real property and business entities and were managed as an integrated enterprise. Its purpose was to liquidate the trusts’ assets and distribute proceeds to beneficiaries, and any sale or disposition negotiated by the trustee was subject to approval by a majority of beneficiaries.

The litigation in this case arose after the majority of the RET beneficiaries approved the $48 million sale of the RET‟s principal asset — the 68,000-acre Onyx Ranch, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just outside of Bakersfield. The trustee Oscar Rudnik petitioned the Kern County probate court for instructions requesting approval of both the sale and the proposed distribution.

The three minority beneficiaries opposed this petition and claimed that the Onyx Ranch was worth substantially more than $48 million, that the trustee violated his fiduciary duty and that the transaction violated the terms of the RET.

The probate court concluded that the minority beneficiaries' opposition was primarily for the purpose of causing unnecessary delay in the sale and was in bad faith. The probate court then awarded approximately $226,000 in attorney fees and costs to the trustee and ordered these fees charged against the minority beneficiaries' future trust distributions. The probate court reasoned that it was unfair to burden the majority of beneficiaries who approved the sale by a vote of 60 percent.

The Court of Appeal upheld the order of attorneys' fees on the ground that the probate court, as a court sitting in equity, had the authority to charge the awarded fees against the minority beneficiaries' trust interests. The decision sets forth the law as follows: “[W]hen a trust beneficiary instigates an unfounded proceeding against the trust in bad faith, a probate court has the equitable power to charge the reasonable and necessary fees incurred by the trustee in opposing the proceeding against that beneficiary’s share of the trust estate.”

Posted by Henry J. Moravec, III. Henry (Hank) Moravec is a partner at Moravecs, A Professional Law Corporation in San Marino, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He focuses his practice on Estate Planning, Probate Litigation, Trust Administration, Beneficiary Representation, Trustee Representation, Tax Law, and Nonprofit Law.

Should you have any questions regarding your own situation, you can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210. The firm website is http://www.moravecslaw.com/