We often receive inquiries about whether we will represent parties in California trust and will contests on a contingency basis. In contingency representation, the lawyer does not collect a fee unless the client obtains a favorable settlement or court judgment. Contingency fees usually are structured on a percentage basis, with the lawyer receiving perhaps 25-40
California’s anti-SLAPP statute has generated another published case for trust and estate lawyers to ponder. Last week, in Urick v. Urick (2017) 15 Cal.App.5th 1182, the California Court of Appeal confirmed that anti-SLAPP motions can be used to attack petitions to enforce no contest clauses.
The opinion reminds California trust and estate counsel to be cautious when using petitions to attack the court filings of other parties. At the same time, the opinion demonstrates that a well-conceived attack on an adversary’s filing ultimately should not fall to an anti-SLAPP motion, even if it takes an appellate court to set things right.
SLAPP is an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” To discourage and weed out such suits, the Legislature created a special procedure to challenge them. Last year we wrote about the use of anti-SLAPP motions as a defensive tool in trust and estate litigation. We discussed the use of such motions to challenge efforts to enforce no contest clauses, using an unpublished appellate case as an example. With Urick, we now have published authority in California for guidance.
Since California trustees generally can use trust funds to pay lawyers to handle disputes, litigation can drain away the funds available for distribution to beneficiaries. Hence, an overaggressive beneficiary can pursue litigation that penalizes all beneficiaries, even those who have no responsibility for the fight.
Last week the California Third District Court of Appeal, based in Sacramento, clarified the scope of liability for litigants who act in bad faith in trust disputes. In Pizarro v. Reynoso (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 172, the Court of Appeal ruled that a probate court’s equitable authority to charge the trustee’s legal expenses against a party who has litigated in bad faith is limited to the party’s share of the trust estate and does not extend to the party’s personal assets.
As a trust litigation attorney in Sacramento, I seldom see overlap between bare knuckle political campaigns and family inheritance disputes. So, on the eve of a big election, it seems fitting to report on a new case that bridges political and family conflicts.
A few months ago, I wrote about the anti-SLAPP statute as a powerful defensive tool in California trust and estate litigation. Adding new light to the subject is a Sacramento-based appellate court’s decision in Greco v. Greco (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 810.
The case narrows the ability of fiduciaries to bring motions to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute when they are sued for how they have spent trust and/or probate assets.
In heated California trust and estate litigation, one party’s petition to the probate court often leads the other side to file a retaliatory petition. If Sally petitions in Sacramento County Superior Court to contest Mom’s trust amendment on the ground that Mom had Alzheimer’s disease and lacked sufficient mental capacity to reduce Sally’s share, brother Bob may file a petition to enforce the no contest clause in the trust against Sally and thus seek to intimidate her.
Yet retaliatory claims can be radioactive for those who assert them given California’s “anti-SLAPP” statute, codified at Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. “SLAPP” is an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.” The statute creates a “special motion to strike” frivolous claims that aim to chill the valid exercise of speech and petition rights. A petitioner faced with an anti-SLAPP motion quickly finds himself on the hot seat. If he lacks evidence to substantiate his claims, the court will dismiss them and require him to pay his opponent’s legal expenses.
A contest over the validity of a trust or a trust amendment is an expensive undertaking, typically requiring extensive discovery and a lengthy trial. Can a trustee use the trust’s assets as a war chest to fight off the contestant, even when the trustee is a beneficiary of the challenged trust document and thus has…