When an administrator (or executor) of a California estate is named in a judgment, the attorney drafting the judgment must be careful. A person who acts in a representative capacity should be identified that way in the judgment – otherwise, the attorney may have to pursue a costly fix.
A recent probate case from San Joaquin County Superior Court illustrates the point. The Third District Court of Appeal, in Estate of Billy Joe Douglas (2022) ___ Cal.App.5th ___, held that a clerical error in naming an estate administrator as a judgment debtor could be fixed by a motion to correct the judgment.
Audrey Douglas administered the estate of her father, Billy Joe Douglas, a real estate entrepreneur who died at age 70. Audrey concluded her work in 2008 with a petition for final distribution. The court directed her to pay approximately $100,000 to a Stockton law firm, Neumiller & Beardslee, A.P.C., for services rendered and costs incurred.
Apparently, Audrey did not pay the Neumiller firm the full amount owed. In 2015, Neumiller filed an application to renew the 2008 judgment, well in advance of its scheduled expiration in 2018. Neumiller, however, identified the judgment debtor as “Audrey Douglas,” failing to state that she was named in her representative capacity as administrator of the estate.
The clerk approved the application without involvement by a judge.
In 2020, Neumiller filed a motion to correct the error in its judgment renewal application. A beneficiary of the estate, Joanna Douglas-Dorsey, contended that the clerk’s renewal of the judgment had transformed it into a personal obligation of Audrey, not the estate, such that Joanna as a beneficiary should not have her share of the estate reduced by collection of the judgment.
The Court of Appeal rejected Joanna’s arguments, reminding readers that the “law respects form less than substance,” a maxim codified in California Civil Code section 3528.
Section 473(d) of the Code of Civil Procedure allows courts to correct clerical mistakes in judgments or orders. A “clerical error” includes any mistake that is not the result of an exercise of the judicial function.
Hence, since the clerk renewed the judgment as a ministerial act, it could be corrected by motion under section 473(d).
Estate of Billy Joe Douglas gives California trust and estate lawyers a recognized way to fix judgments (or renewals of judgments) entered by or against individuals when they should have been entered against such persons in their representative capacities, such as administrator, executor or trustee. Of course, getting it right the first time will avoid a motion to fix the mistake.
It’s unclear from the opinion why Neumiller found itself in the unenviable position of not getting paid for work it did for the administrator once the court approved the petition for final distribution. Instead, it seems that over a decade passed before Neumiller could collect what it was owed. By then, with post-judgment interest at ten percent per year, the value of the judgment to Neumiller may have doubled.