California causes of action are subject to various statutes of limitation.  Unless a plaintiff or petitioner files a complaint or other document asserting a cause of action within the applicable limitations period, the filing will be deemed time barred and subject to dismissal.  Under some circumstances, however, statutes of limitation may be tolled or suspended so as to extend the filing period.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused court closures, the California Judicial Council responded with Emergency Rule 9, which tolled the statutes of limitation for civil actions from March 6, 2020 until 90 days after the Governor lifts the state of emergency, which will not occur until an unknown future date.

The initial emergency rule, issued April 6, has now been revised and partially clarified.  As California courts began to reopen in May, the Judicial Council chose to put a clearer endpoint on the tolling of limitations periods.  A memorandum from the Judicial Council provides background on the amended rule.

Amended Emergency Rule 9 of the California Rules of Court creates two tolling periods depending on the length of the pertinent statute of limitation.  Under Rule 9(a), statutes of limitations that exceed 180 days are tolled from April 6, 2020, until October 1, 2020.  Under Rule 9(b), statutes of limitations of up to 180 days are tolled from April 6, 2020, until August 3, 2020.

For example, California Code of Civil Procedure section 366.2 generally requires that claims arising from liabilities of decedents be filed within one year of the decedent’s death.  If Grandpa Larry died on July 1, 2019, the last day to file a complaint subject to section 366.2 ordinarily would be July 1, 2020.  However, under Rule 9, the limitations period is tolled from March 6, 2020 until October 1, 2020, a 178-day period.  When the clock begins to tick again in October, 116 days will remain on the limitations period such that the limitations period moves out from July 1, 2020 to January 25, 2021.

For those administering Grandpa Larry’s trust and/or estate, this means that they may have to delay closing out his financial affairs until the extended one-year period has run.  However, California law as to limitations periods in the trust and estate arena is complex and sometimes murky.  A creditor may have to file a claim in a probate proceeding before suing the personal representative of the estate, and such claims have additional timing constraints.  Accordingly, anyone who is considering making a claim or who may have to defend against one should consult with a California attorney about the particulars of their situation.

Indeed, the impact of Rule 9 on the various deadlines and timetables in the Probate Code remains unclear.  In the Advisory Committee Comment, the Judicial Council explained that the rule “is intended to apply broadly to toll any statute of limitations on the filing of a pleading in court asserting a civil cause of action.”  Further, the Judicial Council clarified that the rule “applies to statutes of limitations on filing of causes of action in court found in codes other than the Code of Civil Procedure, including the limitations on causes of action found in, for example, the Family Code and Probate Code.”  But when is a statutory deadline or timetable a “statute of limitation” such that it falls within Rule 9?

When the Judicial Council circulated the proposed rule, commenters from the probate bar spoke up and requested clarification.  Many suggested that Rule 9 be expanded to include “any deadline for filing a petition, pleading or other document or taking an action as set forth under the Probate Code.”  The Judicial Council committee chairs declined this proposal.  In their memorandum, they acknowledged “some ambiguity as to whether certain deadlines in the Probate Code operate as statutes of limitations,” but concluded that this “is not an issue that should be addressed in a rule of court.”

Hence, it appears that Rule 9 will apply to deadlines in the Probate Code that may be classified as statutes of limitation on the filing of causes of action, but not to other time periods.  When parties object to the timeliness of filings, probate judges will be left to apply Rule 9 and determine how far it reaches into the nooks and crannies of the Probate Code.

Jeffrey Galvin is an attorney with Downey Brand LLP, based in Sacramento. He litigates trust and estate cases in Northern California, including disputes involving trust and probate administration, contests of trusts and wills, and financial elder abuse claims.