Thursday, January 31, 2013

Litigation in the Probate Courts, Part I - What Will Happen If Someone Files A Lawsuit In Probate Court?

What Will Happen If Someone Files A Lawsuit In Probate Court?

One common question that arises in the area of our practice which focuses on resolving disputes among executors, trustees, and beneficiaries is: "what will happen if someone files a lawsuit in Probate Court?" It's the client's  "nickle" if legal fees mount up, so its not only a fair question, but a critical one.

The answer to that question is something everyone who is focusing on their own estate planning ought to know, and something a person who is involved in an estate administration should absolutely know. Not knowing can lead to bad decisions which are difficult and expensive to fix at a later date. I will explore this topic over a series of posts.

The "normal functions" of the Probate Court are simply:
-- to figure out who is entitled to the property of someone who died, and
-- to also administer the estates of people who can no longer legally take care of themselves (guardianships and conservatorships).

This series of posts will focus on the estate and trust litigation process, but the possibilities for disputes in guardianships and conservatorships are just as frequent and can be even more frustrating.

Difference Between Civil Litigation and Probate Litigation

What I often tell clients is that there is a big difference between general civil litigation and probate litigation.  In general civil litigation: the vast, vast majority of disputes (which are not a matter of divorce proceedings) involve an insurance company as the ultimate paying party. General civil matters end up essentially boiling down to a war of attrition, where the insurance company who is defending the matter finally decides what the case is worth to go away. There are also a large contingent of employment related disputes, where you substitute an employer (usually a large one, since small employers do not have large amounts of money)  for the insurance company.

In a probate or trust dispute litigation, however, there is rarely, if ever, an insurance company involved, the matters tend to be highly emotional (more on that below). The first "stage," if you will, is sorting out the dispute from the actual amount in dispute.

For example, in a $100,000 estate, the maximum amount in dispute is a maximum of $100,000. In a $1,000,000 estate, the maximum amount in dispute is $1,000,000 and so on.

Emotional Losses Can Exceed The Monetary Loss (Case Study)

The most common emotion we see is a client who has an "emotional loss" which far exceeds the monetary loss. Here is a case study in this which is common in our practice.

A brother was certain his sister had been taking advantage of their father prior to and after their father's death. In the first few hours of investigating, we found $40,000 had been improperly transferred. We wrote a demand letter and the sister agreed to reimburse the estate. Since the sister and the brother were splitting the estate --  that $40,000 improper transfer was worth $20,000 to the brother (the sister was entitled to the other half).  At this point, the brother had spent only a few thousand dollars in attorneys' fees.

Then, a very familiar emotion kicked in.  The brother was upset that his sister had taken $20,000 that should have gone to him. Brother also became upset that he had to hire an attorney to protect his rights. Based on this emotion, he embarked on a hunt to see what other improper transfers or expenses his sister "might" have made in the estate.  After many more thousands of dollars in legal fees -- and at least a hundred hours of his own time -- he found a trip to the Home Depot  for $325 that the sister charged to her father that she should have paid herself.

In the end, the case settled because both brother and sister realized that there was only so much involved  and that a search, involving lawyers, for total certainty, was simply too expensive.  They would both (especially our client) have to be satisfied with what I would call "partial certainty"  - they did not know for certain that every nickel had been accounted for, but they did know that the overall result was relatively fair, and that more litigation was not worth it.

One reason that the case settled with a relatively small attorney cost was that opposing counsel was an experienced probate attorney who knew, from the beginning, how to advise his client about her duties and moreover, that the case should settle.  In future installments, I will tell a horror story or two about what can happen if a general civil litigator is involved in a probate litigation.

Probate Litigation Lesson 

We all have parents. Many of us have siblings. In any case no one has a perfect relationship with all members of their family. Thus, the lesson to be learned from the above story is that the death of a parent and an inheritance can fray almost any family bond.  Before you make a decision based on those very understandable emotions, call us or any experienced probate lawyer. Although it may not seem like it, it could save you quite a bit of money down the road.

As a trustee or executor, you can be sure not to make an inadvertent mistake that riles up beneficiaries for no reason. As a beneficiary, you can be sure not to throw allegations at a trustee who may actually be doing their best.  Either way you can replace emotions with knowledge, which is always a good deal.

An experienced and honest probate lawyer will help you create a strategy from the outside and not simply capitalize on the normal emotions that are inherent in these cases. When you need to be aggressive - they will also know how to be efficiently aggressive to help you win or obtain the best possible result.

Posted by Henry (Hank) J. Moravec, III, a partner at Moravec, Varga and Mooney, A Partnership.
For a free 30 minute consultation (telephonic or in person), you can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210 or (818) 769-4221. The firm website is www.moravecslaw.com

The firm's office is located at 2233 Huntington Drive, Suite 17, San Marino, California 91108 and there is ample free parking.

Monday, January 28, 2013

7 Strategies To Reduce Potential For Probate Litigation

The increase in probate litigation in our practice continues.  We had speculated last year that this might be due to the economy and shrinking real estate values in California. Even when litigation is necessary, and we have had to aggressively defend our clients or trustees -- we know that litigation can be costly, time-consuming and destructive to family relationships.

Accordingly, I wrote a post a couple of years ago addressing the question of how to reduce the risk of litigation in the estate and trust context during the planning stage. Although these methods are not guaranteed ways of avoiding litigation and every estate plan is different -- the ideas here are useful starting points to consider in the estate planning stage.

We had previously listed six strategies to reduce the potential for litigation, but please take note of the new number 7, which recent experience has shown may be the most effective:

1. Advise Inheritors of Inheritance Plans. 

Especially when children of the decedent are treated unequally, will contests and litigation arise from disappointed feelings of entitlement. Telling the children ahead of time what their shares will be may avoid a later dispute. One could enter into a contract (for consideration or something of value) with such a person that he or she will not object to the validity of the document. Be careful however, that advising a child that he or she will not receive an equal share may have adverse effects even if it prevents litigation after death. Thus, informing inheritors of the plans could cause family problems in the present. This will vary from family to family.

2. Use a Revocable Trust in Lieu of a Will. 

 Since a revocable trust can be funded and operate during lifetime, it is difficult to contest on the grounds that the individual was unaware of its terms. When the Settlor of the trust dies, there is no need to begin a court proceeding to "prove" the validity of the trust, such as there is for a will.

3. Use an Irrevocable Trust in Lieu of a Will or Revocable Trust. 

 An irrevocable trust is even less likely, in my experience, to be challenged than a revocable trust. Irrevocable trusts can be drafted in such a way so that transfers of property to them are not completed gifts. However, there are other risks and issues with irrevocable trusts that must be considered.

Alternatively, making a transfer that is a completed gift, paying gift tax, and filing a gift tax return disclosing details may be additional evidence that the transfer was truly intended. Again, I believe that a lifetime trust that is significantly funded is less likely to be challenged.

4. Use a Disinheritance Or No Contest Clause. 

If the testator lives in a state such as California that will enforce it under certain circumstances, a disinheritance clause (also called an in terrorem clause for the Latin word "in fear") could be used. The goal here is to prevent beneficiaries from causing a legal ruckus after the testator is gone. A lot of trust and estate litigation is not about the validity of the document, it is about its interpretation or about actions taken by the fiduciary. In order to reduce this type of litigation, a disinheritance clause can cause a forfeiture of a beneficiary's interest if such a challenge is made. The entire estate plan must be consistent with this clause.

With the advent of passage of Senate Bill 1264 which enacts Probate Code Sections 21310-21315 effective January 1, 2010, California's "no contest" law has been significantly weakened. This weakening affects wills and trusts that became irrevocable after January 1, 2001 and later. "No contest" clauses traditionally penalize parties who attempt to attack a will or a trust. Now, it will be significantly easier to attack a will or a trust in California.

5. Use Mediation or Arbitration Provisions. 

Arbitration or mediation cannot be used with respect to the challenge of a document's validity unless the parties agree to it. Using a disinheritance clause to cause forfeiture if the parties will not participate can be used. This could stop claims that are filed only to harass other beneficiaries or to delay distributions to others. Another approach would be having the parties enter into a contract agreeing to arbitration before the transfer.

6. Use a Condition Precedent to a Bequest as an Alternative Method of Causing Participation in Mediation or Arbitration. 

Since a person cannot be forced to participate in arbitration or mediation unless the law provides for enforcement, consideration must be given to how to get parties to use these methods. One can use the carrot instead of the stick. Parties can be given a benefit if they consent to use arbitration or mediation instead of resorting to court.

7.  If a particular beneficiary shows signs of being difficult, make the gift to that beneficiary a specific gift.  
The wisdom of this particular method has been illustrated by a current matter in our office.   Consider the difference between  giving a beneficiary 20% of the estate, or $1,000,000. If the former, that beneficiary may object to the valuation of all of the estate assets, i.e. "I don't think that property is worth $1,000,000, I think it is worth $1,500,000.  You are trying to under value it!"   If the latter, the specific gift may be paid in cash or currently valued securities, thus vastly reducing the area of dispute.  If the assets are of a sufficient value to draft the plan this way, much argument may be avoided.

When creating estate plans or trust documents it is important to consider the potential for litigation and whether it should be addressed prior to the death or after the death of the people creating it. While much can be done prior to death to resolve potential disputes and keep communications open, often issues only arise after the death of the trustees. During the estate planning stage, this is the time for you to consider what can be done to reduce the likelihood of estate and trust litigation.

Posted by Henry (Hank) J. Moravec, III, a partner at Moravec, Varga and Mooney, A Partnership. For a free 30 minute consultation (telephonic or in person), you can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210 or (818) 769-4221.

With respect to probate, Hank Moravec has over 20 years' experience as one of the best Los Angeles probate attorneys and Los Angeles probate litigation attorneys and is available should you need legal advice regarding your own or a family member's situation. For a consultation, You can e-mail Hank Moravec at hm@moravecslaw.com or call him at (626) 793-3210 or (818) 769-4221 to request a consultation.

The firm website is http://www.moravecslaw.com/