Several years ago, in my second decade of practicing law, I learned a lot about estate disasters. My mother's aunt had substantial financial resources - resources saved and invested over the many decades of her life. She and her now-deceased husband had saved for old age - for security in their retirement years. She owned her own San Francisco home, had a secure pension and a large stock portfolio. Then, in her early 90s, she had a caregiver to assist her at a time of her decreased mobility, limited hearing, other sensory deficits and lost driving privileges.
Trust beneficiary mediations are emotional. Alzheimer's, dementia, stepmothers, split families, undue influence and missing estate assets are threads that often run through the fabric of mediated estate and trust disputes. Passions run high. Feelings of betrayal mixed with grief are common to trust challengers and a protective belief of entitlement is common to the challenged.
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An unexpectedly large number of people open safe deposit boxes, leave them alone for several years, and forget the box ever existed. According to the Sacramento Bee, the California State Controller's Office had the contents of more than 138,000 safe deposit boxes under its control in 2017, including more than 75,000 US Savings Bonds worth more than $30 Million. Sometimes banks move, and sometimes box holders move, but the usual way in which boxes get forgotten is when someone dies.
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.