Inheritance fights are nothing new, nor is public fascination with them. Charles Dickens published Bleak House in 1853, satirizing the English legal system in the context of the fictional case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. More recently, John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, released in 2013, was at the top of the New York Times best seller list.
Are trust and estate disputes on the rise in California? I haven’t seen hard evidence on one side or the other, but it seems that a confluence of factors creates a rising tide.
Aging Population More Prone to Dementia
Two drivers are leading to an aging population. First, longevity has increased with advances in medicine. The life expectancy of an American born in 2013 was 78.8 years, a whopping eight year increase over one born in 1970. Second, the Baby Boomers – that is, the large group of those born between 1946 and 1964 – are now entering their late 60s. As our population ages, the incidence of mental incapacity increases. According to estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of California residents age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease will jump from 590,000 in 2015 to 840,000 in 2025, an increase of 42.4%. While a diagnosis of dementia does not by itself prove a lack of capacity to change an estate plan, the diagnosis certainly raises a capacity issue and also is an indicator of susceptibility to undue influence.
Multiple marriages can lead to divisions among blended families. For example, if Wife wants to favor her children with her share of the property, Husband’s children may be unhappy. Many Baby Boomers do not have a nest egg for retirement such that they may be aggressive in competing for an inheritance.
Geographically Dispersed Families
When adult children live in the same community, they are more likely to share in caring for aging parents, are better able to spot and prevent elder financial abuse, and have ongoing relationships to preserve. But what happens when the children are scattered across the length of California? Siblings who are geographically dispersed, all things considered, are more likely to find themselves in conflict.
Online Estate Planning Templates
In the not-too-distant past, a consumer might pick up a form will at a stationery store. Now do-it-yourselfers can find a myriad of wills, trusts and powers of attorney on the Internet. Some companies sell customizable document templates for a modest price, allowing their completion online in what appears to be a polished final product. Without competent legal advice, consumers may select inappropriate or invalid documents, may fail to complete them clearly, or may not follow proper formalities in executing them. “Cookie cutter” estate planning can result in documents that are murky or simply do not achieve the outcome that consumers intended.
Trusts Lack the Sunlight of Judicial Supervision
One virtue of trusts is avoidance of the costs and delays associated with probate proceedings in the local Superior Court. But probate avoidance has its perils. Mom and Dad usually pick one of their children to administer their trust after they pass. The designated successor trustee may lack the time or knowledge to complete trust administration competently and promptly, or may favor himself or herself at the expense of others. The beneficiaries may fight over the allocation of trust assets, or whether and what fee the trustee should receive. Without a judge to move things along according to a statutory procedure, trust administration may stall, to the frustration and detriment of the beneficiaries.
The Celebrity Effect and the Information Age
Trust and estate fights involving celebrities and the ultra-wealthy are frequently and widely reported in online channels, and court proceedings are sometimes televised. When a Hollywood star’s children battle in the public arena over her estate plan, readers may find parallels in the dramas playing out in their own families. The Internet also provides a forum for ordinary folks to share their experiences, and one person’s tale of undue influence may resonate with another.
All in all, signs point to an increase in trust and estate litigation. Follow this blog and come along for the ride.