It’s not uncommon for the family unit to destabilize after the passing of a loved one. Tensions can, unfortunately, run even further if family members call into question the validity or administration of a trust or probate estate. This scenario is especially common for beneficiaries or heirs if the estate has a high monetary value or a large number of assets. In some cases, these familial disputes may become so contentious they turn into formal litigation.

Trust and/or probate litigation can arise due to various reasons and generally take around 12 to 36 months to resolve. The attorneys at Botti & Morison Estate Planning Attorneys, Ltd. handle a variety of trust and will disputes including, but not limited to the following:

  • Breach of fiduciary duty
  • Lack of mental capacity when signing the trust
  • The deceased was pressured or coerced into the will/trust
  • Determination of, and challenges to, heirship
  • State and federal tax disputes
  • Fraud
  • Challenge to the appointment of administrator
  • Challenge to the Power of Attorney
  • Challenging amendments to a will (codicil contest)
  • Challenging amendments to a trust

California Trust and Probate Litigation Lawyers | Ventura

California’s laws governing trusts and probate are complicated. Plus, trust and estate litigation cases can require in-depth legal and financial knowledge if one wants to successfully protect their interests. That is why we highly recommend you secure a knowledgeable and experienced California estate litigation attorney as soon as possible by calling our offices at Botti & Morison Estate Planning Attorneys, Ltd..

Chris Botti and Paul Morison have over 90 years of collective estate planning and administration experience. They can utilize their vast knowledge and extensive resources to fight for your interests and ensure you receive what you’re entitled to. Call Botti & Morison Estate Planning Attorneys, Ltd. today at (877) 585-1885 to set up your first consultation with the lawyers at Botti & Morison Estate Planning Attorneys, Ltd.. We have offices in Ventura and other Californian cities including Valencia, Westlake Village, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Bakersfield.

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Probate Litigation in California

When disputes arise in probate, a petition can be filed with the superior court to challenge the issue. Matters involved in probate litigation can include:

  • Contesting a will
  • Contesting the appointment or removal of a personal representative
  • Issues with estate management
  • Issues with distribution of the probate estate

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Contesting a Will in California

Most probate litigation cases involve contesting a will submitted into probate. The will can only be contested by the decedent’s legal heirs or the beneficiaries under the deceased’s current or previous wills. There are various grounds for which you can contest a will including:

  • The deceased wasn’t in the right mental state when making this will
  • The deceased was improperly influenced by someone else while drafting the will
  • The deceased was unlawfully detained or confined when writing the will
  • There are various mistakes on the will
  • The will is forged
  • A more recent will or document makes the old will void
  • The will was not created properly and lacks formalities

Generally, one will have 120 days to contest a will once probate commences. After filing the petition, you must then wait a minimum of 15 days for a hearing. At the hearing, you can present your argument as to why the will should be deemed invalid.

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Trust Litigation and Disputes in California

Civil lawsuits filed in Probate Court regarding a significant issue involving a trust or a trustee’s behavior is generally described as trust litigation. It can include many possible claims or causes to action, but most trust litigation cases fall into one of the categories below:

  • Disputed trust accountings
  • Removal of trustee
  • Breach of fiduciary duty
  • Petitions for instructions
  • Disputes between co-trustees

Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Trustees must become a “fiduciary” once they’re appointed. According to the California Probate Code, the trustee must do the following as a fiduciary of the estate.

  • Administer the trust according to the terms
  • Account for all the estate assets, money, debts, etc.
  • Keep beneficiaries informed of financial decisions
  • Duty to review investments and develop a strategy
  • Furnish trust terms upon request
  • Furnish information to the beneficiary upon reasonable request

If the trustee is making investment related decisions, their fiduciary duties must include:

  • Review investments and develop a strategy for them
  • Invest and make property productive
  • Avoid self-dealing and conflicts
  • Duty to diversify
  • Dispose of unproductive assets
  • Consider the beneficiaries needs

Breaching any of the duties described above could give rise to a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. In some cases, beneficiaries suspect a trustee has breached their fiduciary duties, but has no way to prove it. If this occurs, they may request the trustee to furnish an annual accounting.

Disputed Trust Accountings

Trustees are obligated to publish annual accounting data unless the trust terms waive this requirement. However, the trustee must still furnish an accounting if the beneficiary requests it. Failure to provide accounting within 60 days will permit the beneficiary to file a petition with probate court to compel an accounting. From there, the court will typically order the trustee to provide an account within two or three months.

If the annual accounting data doesn’t balance, isn’t transparent, omits data, or indicates a possible breach in fiduciary duty, then the beneficiary can file an objection to the accounting. If this occurs, then the case would head towards trial.

Trustee Removal

When a breach of fiduciary duty occurs, beneficiaries or the other co-trustee may attempt to remove the trustee from the estate. The rationale is the trustee breached their duties and cannot be trusted to manage the estate, so they must be removed. Beneficiaries can file a petition with the court for their removal and they will then schedule a hearing. At the hearing, probate court will determine whether the trustee continues to manage the estate or not.

In addition, the court may suspend the trustee early in the case if they find their conduct to be especially egregious. If this occurs, the court will likely appoint a temporary trustee.

Disputes Between Co-Trustees

Some individuals or families will name two people as co-trustees rather than a single person. The scenario is very common for parents who create a trust and name their two children as trustees. Unfortunately, the more trustees there are the higher the chances are for potential disputes. Some common scenarios that devolve between co-trustees include:

  • One co-trustee attempting to administer the trust in a timely manner while the other is dragging his or her feet
  • Co-trustees don’t get along and have issues working together
  • One co-trustee refuses communication or paperwork to another trustee
  • Trustees disagree on how to dispose of an asset

It’s not uncommon for co-trustees to file a petition to remove one another. They may even ask the court to order the co-trustee to take a particular action if they refuse.

Petitions for Instructions

Being a trustee isn’t an easy task and some find themselves in contentious situations between beneficiaries and family members. It’s not uncommon for beneficiaries to disagree on a particular action, and if the trustee takes a side it could be considered a breach of impartiality. In order to avoid this, the trustee may file a “Petition for Instructions” under Probate Code Section 17200.

If the trustee petitions for instructions, then they can explain their issue in court, offer a solution, and then ask the court for approval. All beneficiaries will be served with the petition and can object to the proposed solution if they choose to. Often a petition for instructions is utilized when the trustee has to make a final decision about expensive property, or a great deal of cash and the beneficiaries disagree on the final outcome.

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Additional Resources

California Trust Law – Visit the official website for California Legislative Information to learn more about their rules and regulations regarding trusts. Access the site to learn more about trustees, trust administration, liability of trustees to beneficiaries and more.

How to Administer an Estate – Visit the official website for the Superior Court of Santa Clara County to learn more about how to administer an estate during probate. Access the site to learn more about your fiduciary relationship to the heirs, filing for inventory and appraisal, paying debts and liabilities, and more information you may need.

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California Probate Litigation Lawyer | Ventura County

If you are a trustee, executor, administrator, conservator, or beneficiary of a trust, will or conservatorship estate please do not hesitate to seek legal counsel from one of our experienced trusts and estates attorneys at Botti & Morison Estate Planning Attorneys, Ltd.. Our offices are conveniently located throughout California and the attorneys on staff have 90 years of combined experience.

Call Botti & Morison Estate Planning Attorneys, Ltd. today at (877) 585-1885 to set up your first consultation free of charge.

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