What are the major differences between a jury trial and a bench trial by a judge in California estate, probate, and trust litigation? Why can a jury trial be advantageous to wronged beneficiaries in cases of elder financial abuse or undue influence? Hackard Law trial attorney Dave Jones explains:
I'm Dave Jones, trial attorney at Hackard Law in Sacramento, California, and I want to talk to you today about jury trials versus bench trials. What is a bench trial? Bench trial, sometimes called the court trial, and basically it's when a judge is the person who listens to the whole case and makes a ruling on the case at the end of the trial as opposed to a jury where you have 12 of your peers, who sit there and listen to the facts and render a verdict at the end.
Now why would you want a jury trial over a bench trial or vice versa? Well, what we consider when we think about that is whether or not there are questions of law that have to be answered or questions of fact. Now, in questions of law, the court legally is the person who has to decide that matter. For anything that's a question of fact, you get to decide whether you want to judge to hear it or you want a jury to hear it.
In the Seventh Amendment, the Constitution mandates that people have a right in a civil trial to have a trial by jury in certain cases. Now in probate cases, unfortunately, the probate code specifically says only judges will decide these issues. So what that means is we have to sit there and think, "Well, what kind of cause of action do we have?" Do we have a cause of action that is a probate cause of action, like breach of fiduciary duty, or whether someone had capacity to execute a will or trust, or is it something that is actually a question of fact that history could decide, like undue influence; elder financial abuse; breach of the duty of loyalty; breach of duty of reasonable care; or something like intentional interference with expected inheritance or fraud. Those are all things that we can allege in civil court and demand a jury trial for.
Another factor we consider is whether or not the fact question is something that is emotionally charged, or something where or it could go either way. And really, you know somebody who is impartial and thinks about this every day, like a judge, would be better to decide these kinds of things. So when we're talking about emotionally charged, we're talking about something where you tell the story to your friends and they say, "No way! There's no way this is fair and that person should get to get away with that!" That's the kind of case we definitely want a jury to hear because they're your peers, they are smart, they can see this kind of unfairness, and they know how to fix it.
Sometimes we have both types of causes of action - maybe we're saying somebody lacked capacity to execute a trust. Maybe we're saying somebody committed fraud and undue influence in getting that trust to be executed. Those can both be tried by the court in a court trial, or we could do some of those causes of action in a jury trial, and some for the court to decide. And in that kind of case, what generally happens is the court will say,
"Well, you do have a constitutional right to a jury trial on these matters, but we have the same witnesses, we have the same set of facts, and we have the same documents that are going to be presented. Let's send it all over to civil court and have the jury decide on the questions of fact, like undue influence, or intentional interference with expected inheritance, and let the judge decide things like lack of capacity."
So that happens quite often, which saves court time, saves you money by not having to do two separate trials, and gets justice done much faster. If you have a case where you think undue influence or lack of capacity has caused a trust to be executed when it shouldn't have, feel free to give us a call at 916-313-3030. We do sometimes take cases on a contingency fee basis, and if you are interested in that, please let us know when you call.