One of the first steps before filing a lawsuit is to decide which court has jurisdiction over it and where it is properly venued. It’s a significant choice – not only for strategic reasons, but also because a poor selection may prove fatal to the lawsuit. Such a hefty decision is not always an easy one. The concepts of “jurisdiction” and “venue” can often be confused and tangled, even by experienced lawyers and judges. In the probate context, there can moreover exist extra layers of complexity that can torment a plaintiff who simply wants to vindicate his or her rights.
In Capra v. Capra (2020) 58 Cal.App.5th 1072, the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento wrestled with the interrelationship between the concepts of “jurisdiction” and “venue,” particularly in the probate context. The court endeavored to slice through this Gordian knot, adding more clarity for plaintiffs who just want to commence their lawsuit on the right foot – or, in this case, courtroom.
It’s a Wonderful Life … Until a Family Squabble Erupts
Capra is a lawsuit with Hollywood lineage. In 1948, famed film director Frank Capra (Frank Sr.) and his wife acquired a picturesque cabin next to June Lake in Mono County. They were thereafter “Riding High,” enjoying the cabin as a summer home for themselves, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Frank Sr. and his wife created the Capra Family Trust in 1974. After his wife died in 1984, Frank Sr. amended the Trust to provide that his share of the Trust’s residue would be distributed to his three children – Frank Jr., Lucille, and Thomas – in equal shares.
After Frank Sr. died in 1991, probate of his estate began in Riverside County Superior Court. The court settled the estate in 1993, ordering final distribution of Frank Sr.’s residual property – including the cabin – to the siblings, as trustees of the Capra Family Trust. In 2007, Frank Jr. died intestate, and his estate passed to his wife and children.
In the following years, the Capra family continued to enjoy the cabin. While it is not entirely clear from the opinion what happened, there seems to have been a “Prelude to War.” In 2015, Thomas declared he was the exclusive owner of the cabin, changed the door locks, and did not provide access to the soon-to-be plaintiffs – Lucille and other heirs.
Given this upset “State of the Union” in the Capra family, Lucille and other heirs filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2016. Following Thomas’ threat of sanctions, they agreed to transfer the case to Mono County Superior Court, based on the cabin’s location.
The Mono County court sustained Thomas’ demurrer on the basis it lacked jurisdiction under Probate Code section 17000 since Frank Sr.’s estate – which formerly included the cabin – was probated in Riverside County Superior Court. In particular, section 17000(a) provides that “[t]he superior court having jurisdiction over the trust pursuant to this part has exclusive jurisdiction of proceedings concerning the internal affairs of trusts.” Lucille and other heirs then appealed.
A Cliffhanger at the Court of Appeal
The Third District Court of Appeal disagreed that the Riverside County Superior Court had exclusive jurisdiction.
Fittingly, on December 22, 2020 – shortly before Christmas Eve – the appellate court served as its own guardian angel for the Capra family, providing a roadmap of jurisdiction and venue for the heirs of the director behind perhaps the most beloved Christmas film of all time.
The court explained that jurisdiction can have multiple layers, including: (1) “fundamental jurisdiction,” which is statewide and not specific to a county; (2) “in personam,” “in rem,” and “quasi in rem,” jurisdiction, depending on whether an action seeks to impose personal liability or authority over property; and (3) jurisdiction deriving from state statutes that declare that the probate department within a superior court holds exclusive jurisdiction over certain actions. The court then explained how venue rules are not jurisdictional.
With these esoteric concepts in mind, the Court of Appeal found “fundamental jurisdiction” was not at issue since a court in California clearly had authority to decide the claims at issue. It then reasoned that the Mono County court erred in finding that the Riverside County court had exclusive jurisdiction under section 17000(a) because there was no longer any estate there subject to administration. Frank Jr.’s estate had been closed since 1993, and the cabin had been transferred to an inter vivos trust existing outside of probate.
The appellate court also observed that section 17000(a) only dealt with the exclusive jurisdiction of a superior court’s probate department, not the jurisdiction of one superior court over another superior court.
The court then turned to the question of venue, reasoning that proper venue would depend on the cabin’s ownership status (i.e., whether the cabin was personally owned or held in a trust). On the one hand, under Code of Civil Procedure section 392(a), venue for an action over land is generally where the land is located. But, on the other hand, under Probate Code section 17005(a)(1), venue over the internal affairs of a living trust is the location of the trust’s principal place of administration.
Because the complaint was too vague about the cabin’s current ownership status – whether it is still held in a trust – the appellate court left it to the Mono County court to decide whether Mono County (where the cabin is located) or Los Angeles County (where Thomas resides) is the proper venue. In other words, the appellate opinion was not the final scene.
Let’s Take It From the Top
Decisions of jurisdiction and venue are “That Certain Thing” not to be taken lightly. Before filing suit, Plaintiffs should consider rules of jurisdiction and venue, including those unique to the arenas of probate and trust administration. Even with savvy lawyers as “technical consultants,” the rules may point in conflicting directions.
While there may be strategic and logistical benefits to a particular forum, an incorrect selection may lead to unhappy consequences. In the case of the Capra family, four years have been spent litigating such issues, all without a conclusion. In Hollywood-speak, the defendants may claim “It’s a Wrap!” on jurisdictional grounds leading to the “film” running way over budget.