New California Case: Bruno v. Hopkins – the Probate Court can charge a petitioning party for the trustee’s attorneys’ fees and costs when the petition to remove the trustee is brought in bad faith

Bruno v. Hopkins is a long, 32-page decision (California Court of Appeal, Sixth Appellate District, June 13, 2022, H044960). The primary holding is that when a party in bad faith petitions to remove a trustee (and thus loses on that petition), pursuant to Cal. Probate Code section 15642(d), the court can charge the losing petitioning party with the attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by the trustee, and those attorneys’ fees and costs can be recovered against the petitioning party personally and not limited to the petitioning party’s share in the trust.

In relevant part, Cal. Probate Code section 15642(d) provides as follows:

Probate Code section 15642:  

(a) A trustee may be removed in accordance with the trust instrument, by the court on its own motion, or on petition of a settlor, cotrustee, or beneficiary under Section 17200.

(b) The grounds for removal of a trustee by the court include the following:

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(c) If, pursuant to paragraph (6) of subdivision (b), the court finds that the designation of the trustee was not consistent with the intent of the settlor or was the product of fraud or undue influence, the person being removed as trustee shall bear all costs of the proceeding, including reasonable attorney’s fees.

(d) If the court finds that the petition for removal of the trustee was filed in bad faith and that removal would be contrary to the settlor’s intent, the court may order that the person or persons seeking the removal of the trustee bear all or any part of the costs of the proceeding, including reasonable attorney’s fees.

Bruno also discusses what is “bad faith,” apparently holding that bad faith in the context of section 15642(d) involves a subjective determination of the contesting or petitioning party’s state of mind, and whether she or he acted with an improper purpose or for an improper motive. The case also contains a discussion of the facts pursuant to which it was found that the petition to remove the trustee was brought in bad faith, and that discussion in part also pertained to the credibility of witnesses and the reliability of the contesting or petitioning party’s expert witnesses. Finally, Bruno also discusses cases in which a petitioning beneficiary’s share of the trust was charged with the trustee’s attorneys’ fees and cost under the equitable powers of the court to protect a trust or an estate. Although that theory for recovery of the trustee’s attorneys’ fees and costs did not apply in Bruno because in Bruno the contesting or petitioning party did not have a beneficiary share in the trust, Bruno does in part discuss equitable powers of a probate court and appears to affirm at least some of those powers in dicta, citing, for example, Rudnick v. Rudnick and Pizarro v. Reynoso.

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David Tate, Esq. (and inactive CPA)

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David Tate, Esq. (and inactive California CPA) – practicing only as an attorney in California.