On March 3, 2020, the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, in Estate of Ashlock, Case No. F078083, issued a new Opinion, part of which was certified for publication, in the long-running battle involving the Estate of Lonnie Lamont Ashlock, Stacey Carlson and Gabriel Ashlock. These are hotly litigated cases. There have been several prior appellate Opinions issued, most of which are unpublished. Indeed, only a small part of the March 3, 2020, Opinion is certified for publication.
These cases involve trust, will, partnership, alleged forgery, alleged breach of fiduciary duty, instrument/document contests, and other issues, also including California Probate Code Sections 850-859.
The holding in the published part of the March 3, Opinion is that Probate Code Section 859 provides for recovery of the actually recovered property plus twice (or two times, or double) the value of the recovered property. As noted in the Opinion, California Appellate Court’s have interpreted the wording of Section 859 in different ways. For example, one Court has interpreted the Section as stating that the recovery of twice (or two times, or double) the value means the recovery of the actual property plus the value of the recovered property. For example, if the recovered property has a value of $1,000, under the first scenario (and in accord with the Opinion in Estate of Ashlock) the recovery would be the property ($1,000) plus an additional $2,000 (twice the value of the property), whereas under the second scenario the recovery would be the property ($1,000) plus an additional $1,000.
An increasing number of cases involve claims under Probate Code Sections 850-859. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, there are few appellate cases that interpret those code sections or that apply different fact situations to those code sections. It is my view that particularly with respect to Sections 850 and 859 it would have been helpful if the Legislature had made some of the wording and provisions more clear. Many of my cases involve Probate Code Sections 850-859.
For your ease of reference, below I have pasted the current wording of California Probate Code Sections 850 and 859.
(a) The following persons may file a petition requesting that the court make an order under this part:
(1) A guardian, conservator, or any claimant, in the following cases:
(A) Where the conservatee is bound by a contract in writing to convey real property or to transfer personal property, executed by the conservatee while competent or executed by the conservatee’s predecessor in interest, and the contract is one that can be specifically enforced.
(B) Where the minor has succeeded to the interest of a person bound by a contract in writing to convey real property or to transfer personal property, and the contract is one that can be specifically enforced.
(C) Where the guardian or conservator or the minor or conservatee is in possession of, or holds title to, real or personal property, and the property or some interest therein is claimed to belong to another.
(D) Where the minor or conservatee has a claim to real or personal property title to or possession of which is held by another.
(2) The personal representative or any interested person in any of the following cases:
(A) Where the decedent while living is bound by a contract in writing to convey real property or to transfer personal property and dies before making the conveyance or transfer and the decedent, if living, could have been compelled to make the conveyance or transfer.
(B) Where the decedent while living binds himself or herself or his or her personal representative by a contract in writing to convey real property or to transfer personal property upon or after his or her death and the contract is one which can be specifically enforced.
(C)Where the decedent died in possession of, or holding title to, real or personal property, and the property or some interest therein is claimed to belong to another.
(D) Where the decedent died having a claim to real or personal property, title to or possession of which is held by another.
(3) The trustee or any interested person in any of the following cases:
(A) Where the trustee is in possession of, or holds title to, real or personal property, and the property, or some interest, is claimed to belong to another.
(B) Where the trustee has a claim to real or personal property, title to or possession of which is held by another.
(C) Where the property of the trust is claimed to be subject to a creditor of the settlor of the trust.
(b) The petition shall set forth facts upon which the claim is based.
(Added by Stats. 2001, Ch. 49, Sec. 1. Effective January 1, 2002.)
If a court finds that a person has in bad faith wrongfully taken, concealed, or disposed of property belonging to a conservatee, a minor, an elder, a dependent adult, a trust, or the estate of a decedent, or has taken, concealed, or disposed of the property by the use of undue influence in bad faith or through the commission of elder or dependent adult financial abuse, as defined in Section 15610.30 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, the person shall be liable for twice the value of the property recovered by an action under this part. In addition, except as otherwise required by law, including Section 15657.5 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, the person may, in the court’s discretion, be liable for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. The remedies provided in this section shall be in addition to any other remedies available in law to a person authorized to bring an action pursuant to this part.
(Amended by Stats. 2013, Ch. 99, Sec. 1. (AB 381) Effective January 1, 2014.)
Remember, every case and situation is different. It is important to obtain and evaluate all of the evidence that is available, and to apply that evidence to the applicable standards and laws. You do need to consult with an attorney and other professionals about your particular situation. This post is not a solicitation for legal or other services inside of or outside of California, and, of course, this post only is a summary of information that changes from time to time, and does not apply to any particular situation or to your specific situation. So . . . you cannot rely on this post for your situation or as legal or other professional advice or representation.
Thank you for reading this post. I ask that you also pass it along to other people who would be interested as it is through collaboration that great things and success occur more quickly. And please also subscribe to this blog and my other blog (see below), and connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Best to you, David Tate, Esq. (and inactive California CPA) – practicing in California only.
I am also the Chair of the Business Law Section of the Bar Association of San Francisco.
Blogs: Trust, estate/probate, power of attorney, conservatorship, elder and dependent adult abuse, nursing home and care, disability, discrimination, personal injury, responsibilities and rights, and other related litigation, and contentious administrations http://californiaestatetrust.com; Business, D&O, board, director, audit committee, shareholder, founder, owner, and investor litigation, governance, responsibilities and rights, compliance, investigations, and risk management http://auditcommitteeupdate.com
My law practice primarily involves the following areas and issues:
Trust, Estate, Probate Court, Elder and Dependent Adult, and Disability Disputes and Litigation
- Trust and estate disputes and litigation, and contentious administrations representing fiduciaries and beneficiaries; elder abuse; power of attorney disputes; elder care and nursing home abuse; conservatorships; claims to real and personal property; and other related disputes and litigation.
Business, Business-Related, and Workplace Disputes and Litigation: Private, Closely Held, and Family Businesses; Public Companies; Nonprofit Entities; and Governmental Entities
- Business v. business disputes including breach of contract; unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices; fraud, deceit and misrepresentation; unfair competition; licensing agreements, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; etc.
- Misappropriation of trade secrets
- M&A disputes
- Founder, officer, director and board, investor, shareholder, creditor, VC, control, governance, decision making, fiduciary duty, conflict of interest, independence, voting, etc., disputes
- Buy-sell disputes
- Funding and share dilution disputes
- Accounting, lost profits, and royalty disputes and damages
- Access to corporate and business records disputes
- Employee, employer and workplace disputes and processes, discrimination, whistleblower and retaliation, harassment, defamation, etc.
Investigations, Governance, and Responsibilities and Rights
- Corporate, business, nonprofit and governmental internal investigations
- Board, audit committee and special committee governance and processes, disputes, conflicts of interest, independence, culture, ethics, etc.; and advising audit committees, governance committees, officers, directors, and boards
The following are copies of the tables of contents of three of the more formal materials that I have written over the years about accounting/auditing, audit committees, and related legal topics – Accounting and Its Legal Implications was my first formal effort, which resulted in a published book that had more of an accounting and auditing focus; Chapter 5A, Audit Committee Functions and Responsibilities, for the California Continuing Education of the Bar has a more legal focus; and the most recent Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide (February 2017) also has a more legal focus:
The following are other summary materials that you might find useful:
An internal investigation summary overview page from a prior blog post which you can find at https://wp.me/p75iWX-dk if the below scan is too difficult to read (and you will also find other posts about investigations on my blog):
AUDIT COMMITTEE SELF-EVALUATION
David W. Tate
Attorney at Law
Certified Public Accountant (inactive California)
Copyright 2019 David W. Tate (however, you are authorized to download and print these materials for your use, and to also pass them to other people who would be interested)
D&O, Audit Committees, Risk Management, Compliance, Investigations & Governance: http://auditcommitteeupdate.com
Trust, Estate, Conservatorship & Elder Abuse Litigation: http://californiaestatetrust.com
Self-evaluation is an important board and committee activity, and can be very helpful if done properly.
A. Introduction and Overview
The following discussion covers audit committee self-evaluation and provides processes that you can use. As noted elsewhere in these materials, although many board and audit committee functions, responsibilities and tasks are specified by statute, regulation, rule or pronouncement, board and audit committee member standards of care remain significantly dependent on due diligence and prudent judgment.
Boards and audit committees of various entities are required by law, regulation or rule to conduct annual committee self-evaluations; however, it is worthwhile for boards and audit committees of all public and private companies and nonprofit entities to conduct self-evaluations. Board and audit committee jobs are challenging, ongoing, and technical in nature, and require the members to significantly interact with many people in different capacities within and outside of the entity. It only makes sense that both boards and audit committees should at least once each year take time to step back and review, evaluate and make improvements to their manners of operation, and also consider helpful actions that can be taken by other people with whom the boards and audit committees interact. Self-evaluation will be worthwhile even if it results in improving only one area of operation.
Board and audit committee responsibilities originate from several different sources at least including (1) activities and responsibilities that boards or audit committees voluntarily undertake or that are delegated to them; (2) the business judgment rule; (3) the specific laws, regulations and rules that are applicable to the entity’s directors and audit committee members; (4) the wording of the board and audit committee charters, if there are charters; (5) shareholder and stakeholder expectations, and (6) for audit committees, accounting and auditing pronouncements relating to the outside auditor’s activities.
Prudent board and audit committee processes and diligence are also important to reduce member and entity liability and reputation risk. An increasing number of cases hold that board and audit committee members can be liable for failure to exercise sufficient diligence, failure to spot and respond to red flags, and failure to take action. Active board, committee and corporate diligence tend to demonstrate prudent business judgment and negate allegations of recklessness, improper intent, intentional wrongdoing, or “scienter” such as in the context of securities litigation, thus reducing the risk of securities liability and damages. In the context of audit committee activities, potential entity, board, and audit committee member liability typically arises in the context of alleged improper accounting practices, written and oral public misrepresentations (such as with respect to financial matters), and improper employment practices.
Although not required, there can be advantages to having a facilitator conduct an interactive interview approach to the self-evaluation process, but without performance grading or rating: it can be difficult to construct a questionnaire with standardized questions that would be similarly understood by each of the participants in the self-evaluation process; different people use different rating scales; different people express responses in different manners; and certain important issues will change from year to year. A facilitated approach may encourage better discussion and comment, compilation, continuity, explanation, and follow-up. Contact me if you are interested in committee self-evaluation assistance at a reasonable fixed fee.
Issues and topic areas to consider during the self-evaluation process will naturally vary from entity to entity, and from board and audit committee to board and audit committee. Thus, to stimulate discussion, below for both boards and audit committees I have provided lists of potential broad issues or topic areas to consider for discussion and evaluation, including both successes and possible improvements; and I have also outlined processes to assist your board and audit committee self-evaluation processes.
B. Audit Committee Self-Evaluation
1. Sample List of Issues and Topics to Consider for Audit Committee Self-Evaluation
The following is a list of issues and topic areas to consider for discussion and evaluation. The list is intended to help trigger thought processes, but, of course, is not exhaustive as areas of discussion and evaluation will vary from entity to entity, and from committee to committee. The following list is not intended to and does not suggest that each or any of the below issues and topics must be considered or covered and is not a checklist – instead, if your audit committee is required to conduct a specific evaluation process or to cover certain specific issues and topics, you will need to separately consider the specific requirements, if any, for your audit committee and its evaluation process pursuant to law, regulation or rule. In that regard, please also see the disclaimer and limitations at the beginning of these materials.
-Audit committee meeting agenda preparation and dissemination process.
-Committee member independence and situational independence, financial literacy, experience and expertise.
-Committee member access to information and/or education pertinent to the functions and responsibilities of the audit committee. Are the needs of the committee members being met, so that they are sufficiently knowledgeable and educated about the company or nonprofit and its industry; relevant significant accounting and auditing issues; relevant legal matters; internal controls, risk assessment and management; governance; and new developments in those and other areas?
-Committee and committee member interactions, including interaction between committee members, and between the committee and the board, the CEO, the CFO, the outside auditor, the internal auditor, legal counsel, compliance and ethics, HR, consultants, and other people.
-The committee’s processes for identifying and spotting issues, evaluation and decision making.
-The contents of the audit committee charter, and a mutual understanding of the audit committee’s responsibilities and tasks. The charter is a requirement for public companies, and is a good idea for many private companies and nonprofit entities. The charter is a prudent document to identify and clarify the audit committee’s responsibilities. In addition to the committee itself, it is important for the board, the executive officers, and other stakeholders to have a correct understanding about the committee’s responsibilities and limitations, and the extent to which state or local jurisdiction, U.S. and international requirements and responsibilities apply or may apply to your audit committee.
-Selection of the outside auditor; audit planning; review of the performance of the outside auditor; and review of the quarterly review and annual audit report and process (or compilation if appropriate).
-Review of recent developments relating to the business judgment rule, standard of care and acceptable reliance on other people.
-Review of accounting and financial internal and fraud/embezzlement related controls and processes, risk assessment and management, possible entity and individual liability and reputation risk exposure; and compliance assessment and management relating to laws, regulations, and rules that are within the scope of the audit committee’s functions and responsibilities including issues relating to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
– Review of the accounting department, and accounting and financial reporting for transactions including all of the subcomponents such as principles and policies applied (quality not just acceptability); judgments, estimates and reserves; timing and cutoff procedures; off balance sheet transactions; related party transactions; contingencies and liabilities; revenue recognition; expenses; inventories; goodwill; insider trading; and other matters relating to accounting and financial statement reports.
-Implementing revenue recognition rules, and other important, new or changing accounting principles.
-Review of internal investigation processes, procedures and needs.
-Review of the financial and internal audit functions, and how they can be helpful to the audit committee in the performance of its responsibilities and tasks.
-Review of risk management and uncertainty issues, practices and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Implementing COSO 2013 or other appropriate processes.
-Documenting and reporting the audit committee’s activities and minutes.
-The audit committee’s use of attorneys and consultants.
-The company’s investor communication processes.
-Whistleblower, ethics, anonymous reporting and complaint handling processes to the extent that the reporting is within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Document retention policies.
-Review of the compliance and ethics function and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s responsibilities, and how they can be helpful to the audit committee in the performance of its responsibilities and tasks.
-Governance, including tone at the top, financial leadership, transparency and appearance.
-Review of employer, employee and workplace processes, culture, safety, and disciplinary practices that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of tax compliance and reporting issues that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of cybersecurity and internet security issues that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of pension and health plan related issues that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of information privacy issues, practices and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of asset protection, IP, trade secret, etc. practices to the extent that they are within the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of environmental issues and safety that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of product and consumer safety issues, practices and processes that are within the scope of the audit committee’s function and responsibilities.
-Review of ESG, ESG processes, and ESG discussions and disclosures.
-Review of billing and accounting relating to the receipt of funds or revenue from governmental sources such as Medicare and Medicaid; compliance with applicable laws, regulations, rules and other requirements; and oversight of expenses relating to these areas.
-Review of the acceptance, receipt, allocation, expenditure or distribution, and accounting for all charitable and donor funds, grants, contributions, pledges and other resources, including compliance with all requirements, restrictions and special uses.
-Review of accounting for collaboration and joint venture arrangements, including the allocation of receipts/income and distributions/expenses between the entities.
-And, in this economic environment, review of the fair value of funds and investments, including loss of value; liquidity concerns; possible going concern issues; estimates for uncollectibles and related reserves; debt/loan covenants; and funding source uncertainties including those that relate to collaboration and joint venture arrangements.
-It is also important for the audit committee to clarify with the board what responsibilities it has, if any, for oversight of the numerous and various areas of taxation and compliance; ERISA, pension and health and welfare plans; investments; tax exempt status including fund raising, dues, solicitation, and political, campaign and lobby activities; and other areas significant to the entity.
-Discussion about audit committee membership and recruitment needs.
-Additional significant topics or issues that should be discussed.
2. A Self-Evaluation Process and Format for Audit Committees
The following eight primary steps outline a proposed audit committee self-evaluation process that is workable for audit committees of public companies, private companies and nonprofit entities, whether using or not using, an outside facilitator.
Step 1. Determine the people who will be participating in the evaluation process, including the audit committee members, and other people, if any, to interview for comment.
Provide the names of the people who will participate in the evaluation process.
Step 2. Determine how the participant interviews will be conducted, individually or in a group, in person or by telephone, skype or some other means.
Provide comments or information about how the interviews will be handled with the various different people who will participate in the evaluation.
Step 3. Arrange participant individual or group interview dates and times.
Provide participant individual or group interview date and time information.
Step 4. Provide the participants with pre-interview materials and a list of possible issue or topic areas (broad and specific) for consideration and discussion. Of course, the participants can add additional issues or topics. Use this paper for that purpose.
Provide information regarding the status of disseminating the pre-interview materials.
Step 5. Have each participant provide a list of one to five, or more, issues or topic areas that the participant would specifically like to discuss during the evaluation process.
Provide comments and information regarding receipt of issues or topic areas from the self-evaluation process participants, and the respective issues or topic areas listed.
Step 6. Conduct information intake or interviews with participants individually or as a group.
Provide comments and information from the participants or the status of such – the input can be made by the participants themselves or by a facilitator during self-evaluation interviews.
Step 7. Summarize in a report format the issues and topic areas, information received, and suggestions made during the self-evaluation process.
Provide a summary in a report format.
Step 8. Provide a report back to the audit committee, and possibly conduct a committee group review of the self-evaluation process, information obtained, and suggestions made, and possible future actions or follow-up.
Provide additional comments and information about the self-evaluation process or results.
Concluding comments. I hope you have found this discussion helpful and at least a good starting point for your audit committee self-evaluation. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in discussing the audit committee self-evaluation process, or if you would like help with facilitation of committee self-evaluation at a reasonable fixed fee.
Best to you,
David Tate, Esq.