This is the biggest mediation year in our law firm's history. The milestone is significant for our clients, their adversaries and all lawyers involved in the prosecution and defense of estate, trust and elder financial abuse litigation.
It's an all-too-common refrain: after a loved one dies, family squabbles erupt over money. Those disagreements can fracture a family and rip them apart.
This is a busy year for estate and trust mediation - the alternative dispute process in which the parties to a lawsuit meet with a neutral third-party, often a retired judge, in an effort to settle the case. Our litigation practice includes California's largest urban areas and so, not coincidentally, does our presence at mediations. While mediations can be dramatically different there are some constants - including strong emotions.
I listen to hundreds of stories every year. There are dozens of cases for every element of vulnerability. The stories surrounding each element often provide a foundation for the failure of an estate plan that someone tried to make bulletproof.
California estate, trust and elder financial abuse litigation involves fights - it's that simple. These cases are contested - the lawsuits are emotional and hard fought. Wrongdoers don't give up ill-gotten gains easily. I know this because the vast majority of our law practice involves the representation of aggrieved heirs, beneficiaries and victims of elder financial abuse. We're currently litigating in more than twenty California counties.
When it comes to estate planning, a settlor, the maker of a trust, or testator, the maker of a will, seek certainty over uncertainty. They take the time to make an estate plan to diminish risks. Once this is accomplished is the estate plan impervious to challenge? In more colloquial terms - is their will and trust bulletproof. And, if not bulletproof, what will it take to make it bulletproof?
Home equity in Bay Area houses constitutes the largest share of household wealth. Older people, a large part of owner-occupied units, are more likely to have spouses and dual incomes. And, they simply have had more time to accumulate wealth.
Now this happens all the time. Uncle Buster tells you that you're going to inherit his house. Now you love Uncle Buster, and you want him to live to a ripe old age. But you know in your heart that when Uncle Buster dies you are going to inherit his house. Uncle Buster let a few other relatives and neighbors know that he was eventually going to give you the house.
When "an elderly person with a joint bank account dies, do the funds belong to the decedent's estate or do they belong to the additional signer as a co-owner of the account?" A recent California Court of Appeal case held that "[s]ums remaining on deposit at the death of a party to a joint account belong to the surviving party . . . as against the estate of the decedent unless there is clear and convincing evidence of a different intent." This is a basic or black-letter rule, a clear statement of the law. It is also a trap for those inclined to seize upon a seemingly clear explanation of the law that leaves no room for interpretation or nuance.
Anxiety fueled by grief is a part of the inventory process of a decedent's property. A family member is tasked by practicality, family consensus, or an estate document to gather a decedent's assets. Some assets are obvious - a house, documented bank accounts and securities and onsite personal property. Other assets are more opaque - physically separated in a financial institution safe deposit box or a house or office safe.