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Settling Bay Area Estate & Trust House Disputes | Contingency Fees

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Image Credit: San Jose Mercury

Bay Area Superior Courts are ground zero for estate & trust house disputes. Four of the counties, with a combined population of more than 5.3 million people, have a greater population than 28 of the 50 U.S. states. These counties - Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo - have more than 1.6 million homeowners.

When estate and trust disputes arise over the distribution of Bay Area homes, the financial stakes are high. A Bay Area home's average median price in late 2018 was $845,000. San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties led the way with median prices of $1.329 million and $1.1 million respectively. Given the amount of money at issue in a disputed ownership of an estate or trust home, it is natural that Northern California estate & trust litigators are drawn into the fray.

Hackard Law regularly litigates legal and beneficial house ownership issues in the Bay Area. We understand that these cases usually involve more than money - they also involve emotional attachments to the family home. When a parent has been subjected to undue influence resulting in the testamentary transfer of the home, family members are understandably distressed.

So, what can an aggrieved heir or beneficiary do? First, do not delay. There are strict timing requirements in California estate, trust and probate law. Significant rights are regularly lost because of people sitting on their rights and waiting too long to make a viable challenge.

Bay Area heirs and beneficiaries who make a challenge will face the prospect of securing attorneys for the challenge. The will or trust contestant's financial ability to mount a challenge is a real hurdle to the civil prosecution. Estate or trust defenders, backed by the assets of the estate or trust, frequently hold the financial advantage in this type of litigation. So, it makes sense that trust challengers and disinherited heirs often seek counsel willing to prosecute these cases on a contingency fee.

Hackard Law takes significant cases where we think that we can make a substantial difference and there is a wrongdoer who can be made financially accountable for their wrongdoing. And, we often take these significant cases on the basis of a contingency fee.

Contingency fees are arrangements where the client pays fees to a lawyer only if the lawyer handles the case successfully. This arrangement only works economically where money or valuable assets are being claimed. Given the value of Bay Area homes, contingency fees are often available.

In trust and estate related contingency fee arrangements, the attorney agrees to accept a fixed percentage (often 40%) of the total recovery. If the case is settled, won or otherwise resolved, the lawyer's fee comes out of the recovery. If the case is lost, neither the client nor the lawyer gets any money, and the client will not be required to pay the lawyer for the work that was done on the case.

Costs are an important part of the attorney-client fee arrangement. Many times, clients will advance costs, like filing fees, deposition fees and expert fees. Sometimes the client does not have the financial wherewithal to advance fees. The cost issue must be addressed. Ultimately, the advancing of costs is a matter of contract between the attorney and client.

When we represent clients on a contingency basis, we adhere to the ethical rules set in place by the State Bar and the safeguards of California's Business and Professions Code. These include the following guidelines:

  • The agreement is in writing with a signed duplicate provided to the client;
  • The client is notified that the fee is negotiable;
  • The client is notified of the percentage fee as well as how costs and disbursements will affect the size of the fee and the client's recovery.

Contingency fees are not right in every case. Some cases won't qualify for contingency fees because of statutory restrictions, ethical guidelines, or simple economics. Some contestants will not want to use the contingency fee arrangement for a challenge. For those cases that do qualify, and the attorney and client can come to an agreement, the contingency fee can facilitate the challenge to estate wrongdoers that otherwise, as a matter of challenger economics, could not be brought.

If you are the heir or beneficiary of an estate and trust case involving the legal or beneficial ownership of a house and you want to talk with us about a whether a contingency fee might work for you, call us at 916 313-3030. We'll be happy to speak with you.

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