Art by Christopher J. Meyer.
I successfully litigated my first will contest case in 1978. The federal minimum wage was $2.65 per hour, the average price of a gallon of gas was 70¢ and California's population of 23 million was 15 million less than it is today. The primary focus of estate litigation in 1978 was on the decedent's capacity, undue influence and fraud.
I moved away from estate litigation into land use law in the 1980s and eventually into a national plaintiffs' pharmaceutical litigation practice. Following a relatively short retirement, I returned to the full time practice of law in late 2008. I have been active ever since.
A few years ago, the changing face of America also changed the nature of our law practice. Baby boomers, my generation, became the recipients of immense wealth. Wealth transfers don't always go well - when they don't estate, trust and probate litigation may ensue. Disinherited heirs and trust beneficiaries sought us out. We began to take more and more cases involving estate, trust and probate disputes. We learned that as in pharmaceutical litigation, the location of our office didn't really limit us in civilly prosecuting large estate dispute cases, whether in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento or San Diego.
I applied what I had learned in a decade of hard-fought litigation against some of the world's largest and most powerful pharmaceutical companies. I brought something different to the table than I had in 1978. I now had more decades of experience and an understanding of the harsh realities of litigating against a band of 800-pound gorillas.
We began our estate litigation practice anew. My first impression of the current nature of estate litigation has now been confirmed in dozens of litigated cases throughout California. A significant number of attorneys defending estate, trust and probate litigation are estate planning lawyers whose primary legal focus is the preparation of estate plans - not the trial of litigated disputes. Most estate planning lawyers are relatively comfortable in the probate courts and uncomfortable in the civil courts where jury trials are available. In some ways estate-planning lawyers who take an occasional litigation case are like the family-practitioner physicians prevalent in the 1950s, 60s and 70s - they do everything from delivering babies to performing back surgeries.
Hackard Law, along with just a few other law firms in California, is disrupting the status quo in litigated estate disputes. The law has changed - the old focus on whether the decedent had capacity, whether he or she was estranged or whether deathbed or near deathbed beneficiary changes don't matter because they reflect the testator or trustor's intent. Our experience is that a significant percentage of estate wrongdoing also involves elder financial abuse. The law changed in 2014, and we apply the law. Part of the application of the law is its provision with regard to venue - particularly as to civil courts.
A successful action under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act mandates the award of reasonable attorney's fees and costs. This is an effective antidote to a wrongdoer's attitude often exhibited by errant trustees that the trust will pay the costs of defense no matter the wrongdoer's conduct. A financial elder abuser defending against a claim brought under the Act cannot use trust or estate funds in defense. The case is against him - not against the trust or estate. This can often upset the applecart of an overconfident wrongdoer.
If you believe that you have a trust or estate case that also involves elder financial abuse, give us a call at Hackard Law. We'll be happy to talk about your case. We can be reached at 916 313-3030.