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Character Counts | Trust Beneficiary Litigation

Trust Beneficiary Litigation | Character Counts.jpg

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So, let's start with some preliminary observations. This reflection is about the issue of character in trust beneficiary disputes. Character counts in all parts of our lives.

And, when it comes to trust beneficiary litigation, it might take center stage. Few, if any, beneficiary disputes feature one flawless individual of great character and his or her virtuous attorneys against a wrongdoer who is evil incarnate, represented by similarly inclined lawyers. This is generally not life.

The words of Jesus remind us that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. It's hard for any of us to pick up that stone.

Still, it's evident that when we lawyers are hired to represent wronged trust beneficiaries, the issue of character arises - the character of our clients and the character of their opponents. So how do we handle this issue? We start with a recognition that there are two sides or more to every dispute.

When the dispute is between siblings who have been disinherited by a late will or trust that favors one child against her siblings, there is bound to be an inquiry into character. We step back and ask: Why would a parent with a long-held estate plan providing for equality between the siblings change the plan to completely favor one and exclude all others from the inheritance of estate assets?

Sometimes it seems the reason is clear. The parent may have lost all capacity to make estate planning decisions. The parent may have been isolated by the favored beneficiary from her other children. The trust maker may have been swept up in favoring a caregiver who seemed to be the only person on this earth who cared about the trust maker during her last days.

All of this may seem clear. A jury or judge may not find it so clear. The factfinder might want to know about the various beneficiaries' quality of character. While there may be some statutory and procedural limitations to character inquiries, the curiosity might still exist.

When can a disinheritance be legitimate?

  • Was the excluded child a constant source of irritation or concern to the trust maker?
  • Was the excluded child geographically and emotionally distant from her parent?
  • Did the excluded child continually take money from his parent?

You can imagine hundreds of scenarios where it seems that a trust maker would have good reason for disinheritance. And, there are hundreds of other scenarios where the exclusion seems improper and unduly influenced.

When can a disinheritance be illegitimate?

  • Did the ultimately favored child remove and isolate her parent from her siblings?
  • Did the ultimately favored child wholly rely on her parent for all living expenses?
  • Did the excluded child continually take money from his parent?
  • Did the ultimately favored child have a history of substance or alcohol abuse and their attendant social dislocations?
  • Did the ultimately favored child take advantage of an elderly and impaired parent to cause an unequal distribution of trust assets?

There are understandable limitations to character attacks. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. But sometimes the facts don't speak unless context is established.

It's hard for excluded children to visit an ill parent when a caregiver won't let them in the house or speak on the phone. It's hard for intimidated siblings to reach through the enforced isolation of a parent by a dominant wrongdoer.

So, when we go back to the basic premise that character counts, we can affirm that it does, but we need to add a legal caveat. With certain exceptions, "evidence of a person's character or a trait of his or her character (whether in the form of an opinion, evidence of reputation, or evidence of specific instances of his or her conduct) is inadmissible when offered to prove his or her conduct on a specified occasion."

The California Law Revision Commission's comments to the referenced Evidence Code notes that the reasons for exclusion are:

"First, character evidence is of slight probative value and may be very prejudicial. Second, character evidence tends to distract the trier of fact from the main question of what actually happened on the particular occasion and permits the trier of fact to reward the good man and to punish the bad man because of their respective characters. Third, introduction of character evidence may result in confusion of issues and require extended collateral inquiry."

We now know a little more about character evidence and why everyday knowledge that character counts has some limits in evidentiary presentations. It might not prove anything but be very prejudicial. It might be completely irrelevant to the particular case. And, it might cause confusion of the issues and require some additional and maybe unrelated inquiries.

So, it's clear that character evidence has its limits. That said, it is something that I'm very interested in when I look at an estate or trust conflict. It is not something that I would ignore when considering whether or not to pursue a case.

If you would like to speak with us about your story, call us at 916 313-3030. Hackard Law represents clients in substantial estate, trust and elder financial abuse litigation where we think that we can make a significant difference and there is a wrongdoer who can be made financially accountable for damages.

We regularly litigate probate and civil cases in the Superior Courts of Sacramento, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Los Angeles and Orange Counties. We look forward to hearing from you.

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