Important new case: allegations of incompetence could give beneficiary standing, and delaying taking action could bar a beneficiary from contesting a trust or will at a later date (laches), Drake v. Pinkham

Drake v. Pinkham (California Court of Appeal, Third District, Case No. C068747, decided May 28, 2013, ordered for publication June 21, 2013).

This case involves a daughter’s (Gina) contest of two of her mother’s (Josephine) trust amendments (amendments dated 2001 and 2004) on the grounds that at the time of the amendments Josephine lacked mental capacity, was unduly influenced by a second daughter (Janice), and did not understand the amendments or her estate.  On a motion for summary judgment the trial court found that Gina’s contest was barred by the statute of limitations and principles of collateral estoppel.  On appeal, the Court of Appeal did not consider the statute of limitations or collateral estoppel issues, but instead found that Gina’s contest was barred by the defense of laches.

Gina filed her contest after her mother’s October 2009 death.  However, several years earlier, in 2005, Gina had filed a petition requesting the court to confirm her appointment as co-trustee under the terms of the trust and amendments dated 1992, 1993 and 1999.  Gina claimed that Josephine lacked the ability to care for herself or act as trustee and Janice’s alleged undue influence over her – Gina alleged that after the death of Josephine’s husband Theodore Janice began progressively isolating Josephine to the point that Gina no longer had contact with her mother, and that Janice had complete control over Josephine including her finances and was acting as the sole trustee of the trust.  Filed an objection to Gina’s 2005 petition and attached to her objection copies of her 2001 and 2004 trust amendments. The 2001 Fourth Amendment eliminated Gina as a beneficiary and named Janice as the sole successor trustee, and the 2004 Fifth Amendment designated Janice as Josephine’s acting co-trustee and sole successor trustee.  At that time in 2005 Gina did not challenge the 2001 or 2004 amendments.  Instead, Gina entered into a settlement agreement in which Josephine represented that she was the sole acting trustee, and in her capacity as such on behalf of all successor trustees, she agreed not to sell, encumber, lease, rent, transfer or otherwise take any action affecting any real property of the trust without prior notice to Gina and Janice as provided in the trust.

On appeal the Court addressed several important issues that could have ramifications or that might at least be considered in cases where issues exist relating to mental capacity, undue influence, and understanding of the trust or will documents and the nature of the estate and its assets.

1.  On appeal Gina argued as a defense that in 2005 she did not have standing to contest the 2001 and 2004 amendments pursuant to Cal. Probate Code sections 17200 and 15800 because the trust was still revocable in 2005.  The Court of Appeal noted that under sections 17200 and 15800 a beneficiary lacks standing to challenge a trust so long as the “trust is revocable and the person holding the power to revoke the trust is competent.”  The Court held that it was not persuaded by Gina’s argument, holding that since Gina alleged in 2005 that Josephine was incompetent, those allegations by Gina in 2005 took the matter outside of the terms of section 15800, and with those allegations Gina had standing in 2005 to contest the trust amendments, although at trial she still would have had the burden of proving her contest of the amendments.

2.  The Court further held that laches barred Gina from contesting the 2001 and 2004 amendments after her mother died in 2009.  In pertinent part, the Court discussed that the defense of laches requires unreasonable delay plus either acquiescence in the act about which plaintiff complains or prejudice to the defendant resulting from any delay – and that any delay is measured from the time that the plaintiff knew or should have known about the alleged claim.  In 2005 Gina had the usual rights of a trust beneficiary and beneficiary legal standing if Gina simply alleged that Josephine was incompetent, which Gina did in fact allege in 2005.  Further, “Finally, Gina’s failure to bring the action until after Josephine had passed away was necessarily prejudicial where, as here, each and every cause of action set forth in the underlying petition centered on Josephine – her mental capacity, defendant’s influence over her, and her understanding of the Fourth [2001] and Fifth [2004] Amendments and her estate.  (See Bono v. Clark (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 1409, 1420 [the death of an important witness may constitute prejudice]; Stafford v. Ballinger (1962) 199 Cal. App.2d 289, 296 [same].”

Take away from Drake v. Pinkham, assuming that the case is not further appealed to the California Supreme Court.

1.  As always, before you file any pleading, claim, allegation or paper with any court relating to a trust, will or other document with a no contest clause or to which a no contest clause applies, you must evaluate and make sure that the filing will not trigger the no contest clause.  If such a clause is triggered, the result might be that you are disinherited.  These are complicated issues – you need to consult with an attorney on these issues.

2.  A simple allegation that the trustor is incompetent might allow or provide the trust beneficiary or potential beneficiary with legal standing and certain beneficiary rights in an otherwise revocable trust under Cal. Probate Code sections 17200, 15800, the terms of the trust, accounting and information provisions, and other statutes.  Of course, the proof of those claims must still be established by the evidence.

3.  Allegations and claims, statements, and knowledge of facts by a beneficiary or potential beneficiary, or facts that a beneficiary or potential beneficiary should know, could trigger a requirement that the beneficiary or potential beneficiary bring suit and not delay bringing suit to enforce his or her rights and entitlements, or be barred from doing so later pursuant to the defense of laches such as if the testator dies or the testator’s mental competency declines as time passes.

4.  The defense of laches, i.e., delay, and case law relating to laches now take on renewed potential importance in trust, will, conservatorship and power of attorney litigation.  For example, if a beneficiary or potential beneficiary knows of a trust or will, or a trust amendment or will codicil, that is contrary to the beneficiary’s rights or interests, and the beneficiary simply believes that the trustor or testator might have had capacity issues or might have been unduly influenced, or that testamentary document seems contrary to what the trustor or testator would have naturally done or wanted or understood about his or her assets or estate, might that beneficiary or potential beneficiary be required to file a legal action on those possible claims without delay, or be barred by laches from doing so at a later time?  I have seen trust, will, conservatorship and power of attorney situations where people have delayed taking action – under the holding in Drake v. Pinkham they now need to consider the possible effect of delay and possible laches defenses against them if they do delay in bringing a legal action.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco)
Liability, litigation and trials; mediator and dispute resolution; risk management; D&O; boards, governance and leadership.
Real Estate Blog, http://taterealestatelaw.com
Trust, Estate, Conservatorship & Elder Litigation Blog, http://californiaestatetrust.com

Disclaimer and Warning.  This blog post and the contents and information contained in the post are not legal advice, do not create or cause an attorney client relationship with your or anyone else, and do not relate or pertain to any person, entity or factual situation, and I do not know the facts of your situation.  The contents of this blog post are only a summary of information which could change over time.  I have not advised you about your situation, and you definitely should consult with an attorney for your particular situation.

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