Prospective clients often ask whether I've ever seen an estate or trust dispute like theirs. Case facts and wrongdoers' actions seem so outrageous that aggrieved family members may think that their case is a "one in a million." Of course, given the geographic and litigation scope of our practice, most cases don't feel like "one in a million."
An estate and trust litigation practice at times feels like an emergency room. While non-emergency physicians have little opportunity to treat high-energy trauma cases endemic to car accident injuries, emergency room physician see such cases with regularity since nearly 10 percent of all injury-related visits to the emergency room are due to vehicle collisions. So when people come to see us and time is running out on a trust challenge, we get it - we've been there before - we know that help is needed soon.
Difficult high-value trust cases are familiar to our litigation team. Most cases share similarities with previously resolved cases or even pending litigation matters. There are no guarantees that the results of pending or future cases will mirror those of prior cases. All case outcomes are dependent on the facts and law of each particular case. That said, we do find that experience counts.
So what does a trust challenge based on undue influence look like?
We'll share information gained from Hackard Law's knowledge and experience from both inside and outside the courtroom. So let's explore how these cases evolve. Our example is just a little mix of what abused beneficiaries often face. Let's start.
So let's look at a typical fact pattern in an undue influence trust litigation case.
- Delta is born in 1928 in California.
- Delta marries Beau in 1950.
- Delta and Beau have two children: Ava (born in 1956) and Becky (born in 1958).
- Delta and Beau sign a will in 1990 that leaves each of their estate to the other.
- Beau dies in 2000.
- In early 2001 Delta hires Perry to prepare a new trust for her.
Perry prepares a revocable living trust for Delta with Delta as the trustor, trustee and sole beneficiary during her lifetime. Trust assets are to be split between Delta's children in equal shares at her death. Ava is the first successor trustee and Becky is the second.
Delta conveys her Moraga home, her bank and securities accounts into her trust.
Delta receives Social Security benefits, an AT&T pension, and interest on savings and dividends from securities.
In 2010 Delta is treated for high blood pressure. Ava and Becky notice Delta is having trouble keeping a meaningful conversation going. Delta cannot remember recent previous conversations.
Ava and Becky have Christmas with Delta in 2013. Delta is unable to recall her grandchildren's names. Delta repeats questions during any conversation. Delta is losing her short-term memory. Delta's bills are piling up and her banking statements unopened.
Soon after Christmas of 2013 Ava drives Delta to the office of Delta's primary care physician for her annual check-up. The doctor's report documents the following history:
"PT with dementia. PT has lots of stress as she can no longer drive or shop without assistance. PT is asking for antianxiety medication. PT reports weakness, dizziness, and recurrent falls."
Ava and Becky decide to hire a caretaker named Sheila for Delta. Sheila moves in with Delta. Delta is reliant on Sheila for her care. Sheila cuts off Delta's phone communications with her Ava and Becky.
Sheila convinces Delta to transfer the Moraga house to Sheila. Delta adds Sheila to her bank accounts. Delta goes to attorney Fletcher with Delta to amend her trust to make Sheila the trustee and sole beneficiary. Fletcher prepares the documents and they are signed by Delta.
Delta dies two months after the amendment. Ava and Becky learn of the changes. Fletcher, hired by Sheila, sends a notice to Ava and Becky that recites,
"You may not bring an action to contest the trust more than 120 days from the date this notification by the trustee is served upon you or 60 days from the date on which a copy of the terms of the trust is mailed or personally delivered to you during that 120-day period, whichever is later."
Ava and Becky meet with Hackard Law. We get to work.
If you're up against a bad trustee or a case of undue influence, you can contact us at Hackard Law. We're leaders in estate, trust, and probate litigation throughout California, and we regularly represent clients in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Diego. Call us today at 916-313-3030.