No contest clauses are included in wills and trusts to discourage dissatisfied beneficiaries from challenging the document’s validity. Because enforcement of these clauses results in disinheritance, the California Probate Code limits their applicability. But what happens when a beneficiary defends a trust amendment that is found to be invalid? Can the defense of an

Can a disinherited person contest a trust amendment under California Probate Code section 17200?  No, said the Court of Appeal last August in Barefoot v. Jennings (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 1.

The Barefoot opinion put pending trust contests in jeopardy, as contestants typically have used section 17200 as the procedural hook to challenge trust amendments that disfavored them.  Last week, however, the California Supreme Court granted review of Barefoot such that the opinion no longer has precedential value.

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

Bette Epstein, Esq.

Many California trust and estate disputes are resolved by mediation instead of a final adjudication in the Superior Court.  Mediation can offer a custom-crafted resolution to a case that avoids the stress, expense and unpredictability of a trial.  When parties choose to mediate, there is often a deal to be found even

What mental capacity standards apply in California civil litigation?  Last month we presented on this subject at the Placer County Bar Association’s annual spring conference in Roseville.  I’ll offer highlights here.

Short answer: it depends.  The mental capacity standard varies depending on the setting.  The policy rationale for the different standards is elusive, so as our clients present issues we focus on what standard governs instead of pondering why we have a hodgepodge of rules.

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.

Although much wealth passes today through trusts and beneficiary designations, we occasionally handle California probate disputes that turn on the validity of wills, sometimes involving high value estates.

The standard practice in California estate planning is for wills to be typewritten and prepared by attorneys, but those steps are not necessary.  A holographic, i.e., handwritten, will can have just the same effect.

One of the most dramatic areas of California trust and estate litigation is no contest clauses.  No contest clauses bring a made-for-tv excitement to the practice of trust and estate law because of the risk of disinheritance.  Yet such clauses are widely misunderstood, even among attorneys.

Mental incapacity and undue influence are the most common theories used to try to invalidate wills, trusts and beneficiary designations in California and elsewhere.  Occasionally, the subject in a trust and estate dispute has a thorough cognitive evaluation performed contemporaneously with his or her estate planning change.  But, more often than not, the medical record is fragmentary.

In a prior post, we discussed the recurring issues that come up in cases involving Alzheimer’s disease.   Dr. Charles Schaffer, a Sacramento forensic psychiatrist, recently sent me an article entitled “Protecting the Health and Finances of the Elderly with Early Cognitive Impairment,” published this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.  The article focuses on mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s disease.  The relatively subtle nature of these two medical conditions makes their impact on estate planning decisions hard to fathom.

Mental Health DoctorAs a trust litigation attorney in Sacramento, I often make or defend against allegations of undue influence in the context of a trust amendment that favors one beneficiary over another. In this setting, what is the proper role of a mental health expert, such as a forensic psychiatrist, with regard to evaluating undue influence? Last February I wrote on this issue, discussing my recent experience in the probate department of San Joaquin County Superior Court.

An article entitled “Assessing Undue Influence,” in the September 2016 issue of The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, takes up the subject. Written by two psychiatrists, Daniel A. Plotkin and James E. Spar, and an attorney who litigates trust/estate disputes, Howard L. Horwitz, the article seeks to sharpen the focus for mental health professionals who take the witness stand in undue influence cases in the context of testamentary instruments, such as wills and trusts.