The Tale of Choupette the Cat and Other Common Issues in Trust and Estate Litigation

When Karl Lagerfeld passed away in February of 2019 in France, many speculated that his cat, Choupette, was well provided for as part of his estimated $150 million estate. This pampered feline was much loved by Mr. Lagerfeld during his life, and appeared in photoshoots and featured in many high-end fashion magazines. However, over a year after Mr. Lagerfeld’s death, certain media outlets have reported that the administrator of Mr. Lagerfeld’s estate has “disappeared.” Based on these reports, many question whether Choupette will ever be able to dig her claws into her alleged inheritance.

In fact, the failure of a fiduciary to expediently administer an estate and to provide information to beneficiaries is a frequent source of trust and estate litigation. While in California the laws relating to inheritance are different than in France, it is common for beneficiaries to question the actions of a fiduciary managing the estate, particularly when a substantial period of time has elapsed, no information has been provided, and no distributions have been made.

If Mr. Lagerfeld’s estate was being administered under California law, several steps should have already been taken in the administration of the estate. If Mr. Lagerfeld left a will, the custodian of the will would have been required to submit the original will to the superior court of the county in which the estate of Mr. Lagerfeld may be administered. A petition for probate would have been filed to admit the will for probate and also to appoint a personal representative to administer Mr. Lagerfeld’s estate. A noticed hearing would have been held to admit the will and appoint a personal representative.

After the appointment of a personal representative, an inventory and appraisal is required to be filed. If the estate is not in a condition to be distributed after one year in an estate for which a federal estate tax return is not required, or after eighteen months in an estate for which a federal estate tax return is required, a status report is required to be filed. A petition for final distribution would ultimately be filed which typically includes a full accounting of the personal representative’s actions.

Depending on the nature of the estate, the personal representative may have to sell real property, address complex tax issues, engage in litigation, manage business interests, and/or deal with substantial creditor claims. In the event that the fiduciary has violated fiduciary obligations in failing to provide information or otherwise, legal action can be taken to compel information and to redress breaches of fiduciary obligations. However, it may simply be that the size and complexity of the administration requires additional time to complete. In either scenario, it is important for beneficiaries to remain reasonably informed regarding the estate administration in order to adequately protect their rights.

With Right of Survivorship – or Perhaps Not?

In advising clients regarding the rights afforded to joint tenants on a bank account, most practitioners would say that the agreement with the financial institution generally would control, with the surviving joint tenant succeeding to the funds remaining in the account on the death of the other joint tenant. California’s Multiple-Party Accounts Law (Prob. Code, §§ 5100, et seq.) governs ownership of accounts with multiple parties and the disposition of those accounts upon the death of one of the parties to the account. Probate Code section 5302, subdivision (a) provides, in pertinent part, that, “Sums remaining on deposit at the death of a party to a joint account belong to the surviving party or parties as against the estate of the decedent unless there is clear and convincing evidence of a different intent. (Prob. Code, § 5302(a).) Subdivision (c) further provides that, “A right of survivorship arising from the express terms of the account or under this section, a beneficiary designation in a Totten trust account, or a P.O.D. payee designation, cannot be changed by will.” (Prob. Code, § 5302(c).)

Probate Code section 5303 goes on to set forth how the form of the account can be changed once it is established: “(a) The provisions of Section 5302 as to rights of survivorship are determined by the form of the account at the death of a party. (b) Once established, the terms of a multiple-party account can be changed only by any of the following methods:

(1) Closing the account and reopening it under different terms.

(2) Presenting to the financial institution a modification agreement that is signed by all parties with a present right of withdrawal. If the financial institution has a form for this purpose, it may require use of the form.

(3) If the provisions of the terms of the account or deposit agreement provide a method of modification of the terms of the account, complying with those provisions.

(4) As provided in subdivision (c) of Section 5405 (which relates to payment as discharging the financial institution based on specific written instructions).

What happens if the deceased joint tenant states in a will that he or she expressly does not want the account to pass by right of survivorship and, instead, wants the account to pass as set forth in the will? The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, addressed that question in the case of Placencia v. Strazicich (2019) 42 Cal.App.5th 730. In Placencia, Ralph Placencia, the father of three daughters, established a joint tenancy account with Franklin Fund almost 24 years prior to his death. The account was opened as a joint tenancy account with right of survivorship in Lisa, one of his daughters. Lisa never contributed any funds to the account. Ralph executed a will shortly before his death in which he expressly stated that he wanted to “remove” Lisa as the “beneficiary” of the account and, instead, have all three of his daughters be the beneficiaries, with the funds deposited into his trust (of which the three daughters were the sole and equal beneficiaries) and to be used to pay off the mortgage on his residence.

After Ralph’s death, Lisa transferred the funds in the joint tenancy account into an account in her own name. Naturally, a dispute arose among the sisters as to several matters, including the ownership of the account after Ralph’s death. At trial, the court concluded that the will, and conversations Ralph had with his brother-in-law confirming that intent, amounted to clear and convincing evidence that Ralph intended to revoke Lisa’s right of survivorship in the account. Lisa appealed the trial court’s decision.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that “at first blush,” the statutory scheme would seem to support Lisa’s position. After all, the expression of Ralph’s intent was contained in his will and subdivision (c) of Probate Code section 5202 specifically states that the right of survivorship arising from the express terms of the account cannot be changed by will. The court found that the “key to harmonizing” these two statutes lies in the “distinction between the express terms of the account and the beneficial interests in the account.” (Id., at p. 738.)

The appellate court looked at Probate Code section 5201, which stated that the provisions of “Chapter 3 (commencing with Section 5301) concerning beneficial ownership as between parties . . . are relevant only to controversies between these persons and their creditors and other successors, and have no bearing on the power of withdrawal of these persons as determined by the terms of account contracts.” (Ibid., emphasis in original.)

In the court’s opinion, the distinction between these two terms – the terms of an account and the ownership of beneficial interests – is key to interpreting section 5303. The court determined that the terms of a multiple-party can be changed only by utilizing one of the methods listed in Probate Code section 5303. By contrast, the court stated, Probate Code section 5302 concerns the beneficial interests as between the parties to the account: “Sums remaining on deposit at the death of a party to a joint account belong to the surviving party or parties as against the estate of the decedent unless there is clear and convincing evidence of a different intent.” (Ibid., emphasis in original). The court found further support for its determination, by pointing out that subdivision (d) of Probate Code section 5302 contains the following “catchall”: “In other cases, the death of any party to a multiparty account has no effect on beneficial ownership of the account other than to transfer the rights of the decedent as part of the decedent’s estate.” (Id., at p. 739, emphasis in original.) The court went on to say that the fact that the catchall is “explicitly framed in terms of the ownership of beneficial interests strongly suggests that subdivisions (a) through (c) also concern the ownership of beneficial interests.” (Ibid.)

The court viewed Probate Code section 5303 as applying to the obligations of the financial institution to pay the funds to the surviving joint tenant in accordance with the account agreement and Probate Code section 5302 as applying to a claim that the decedent’s estate may have for the funds against the surviving joint tenant.

But, what about the fact that subdivision (e) of Probate Code section 5302 specifically states that the “right of survivorship” cannot be changed by a will? The court addressed this by stating that the will is not effective to change the “right of survivorship” agreement as between the deceased joint tenant, the financial institution, and the surviving joint tenant. However, the will can be considered as evidence of the decedent’s intent as to the disposition of the funds in that account as between the surviving joint tenant and the decedent’s estate. This, the court stated, would be consistent with the “modern trend toward favoring the decedent’s intent over formalities.” (Id., at p. 41, citing Estate of Duke (2015) 61 Cal.4th 871.)

The appellate court did not agree with the trial court’s decision that the funds in the account were to be administered as part of Ralph’s trust. Rather, the terms of Probate Code section 5302, subdivision (d) required the funds to be part of Ralph’s personal estate.

As stated in the Placencia opinion, the courts are continuing the trend towards recognizing the decedent’s intent, including examining evidence that previously would not have been admitted at trial. While in Placencia, the statement in the will did not have the effect of changing the terms of the account so that the financial institution would have been compelled to pay the account directly to Ralph’s executor, it did evidence Ralph’s intent that Lisa not succeed to the account and that, instead, it be included as part of Ralph’s estate.

Given that the court looked at Ralph’s will for the purpose of determining intent, practitioners should not limit their examination of a decedent’s papers exclusively to the will. It seems reasonable to conclude that, had Ralph signed a letter to Lisa telling her that he had no intention of her succeeding to the account as a surviving joint tenant and, instead, wanted it shared with all of his daughters, the result would have been the same.

Webinar: Estate Planning in 2020 – What You Need To Know About Estate Planning Now

On May 6, Kay Brooks presented What You Need to Know About Estate Planning Now, hosted by the Capital Region Family Business Center.  This webinar covered important aspects of estate planning in 2020, including considerations highlighted by the current pandemic.

The presentation addressed:

  • Immediate steps you can take to benefit your family and enhance your estate plan
  • The key documents you want to have in place to protect yourself and your loved ones
  • New features that could improve your revocable living trust agreement
  • How to coordinate your estate plan with your business succession plan
  • Specific logistical challenges occurring now and how to address them

A recording of the webinar can be viewed on the Capital Region Family Business Center website.

Shall We Check His Text Messages? The Growing Trend of Creating Wills in the Digital Age

Co-Authors: Thomas W. Shaver, Esq., John M. Andersen, Esq., and Agnieszka K. Adams

California Trusts and Estates Quarterly

This article was first published in Volume 26, Issue 1, 2020 of the California Trusts and Estates Quarterly, reprinted by permission.

In 2018, the Michigan Court of Appeals determined that an electronic note a decedent typed into his cell phone qualified as his last will and testament under Michigan law. The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled that a will where the decedent affixed an electronic image of his signature in the presence of two witnesses and died approximately one week after the will was witnessed had been executed in conformity with the law. With the growing trend toward recognizing electronically prepared and signed documents in other areas of the law, California is poised to join several states that allow a testator to prepare a will in digital format. California Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D – District 53) introduced Assembly Bill 1667 to amend Probate Code section 6113, and to add Chapter 2.5 to Part 1 of Division 6 of the Probate Code, to provide that a will created electronically is a valid last will of a decedent. This article discusses the current state of California law governing the execution of a will, proposed legislation as drafted and adopted by the Uniform Law Commission, the nuances of the legislation of other states that currently authorize electronic wills, and the experience and concerns of trusts and estates practitioners that should inform the recognition of electronic wills in California.

To read the full article please click here.

Dead Men Tell No Tales and Other Issues with Contracts to Make a Will

First, what is a contract to make a will?

A contract to make a will is exactly as it sounds.  It is an agreement to provide for a person as part of a decedent’s will.  The terms of the agreement could be as simple as a promise to provide services in exchange for a specific cash gift as part of a decedent’s will.  For example, Elizabeth may promise to provide caregiving and household services to William in exchange for William’s promise to provide her with $250,000 upon his death.  When William dies, hopefully his will has a provision leaving a specific cash gift of $250,000 to Elizabeth.  If not, then there has been a breach of the agreement.  The agreement can become substantially more complex, particularly when real property is the subject of the agreement.  Instead of agreeing to pay Elizabeth $250,000 in exchange for her services, William may promise to leave his house to Elizabeth.  Again, when William dies there may be a breach of the agreement if William’s will contains no provision instructing that his house be given to Elizabeth.

A contract to make a will in California can be oral or in writing.  The cases litigated often relate to oral agreements which are difficult to prove.  Further, the terms of the oral agreement may be so uncertain and indefinite that the agreement is incapable of being enforced.  In the above examples, the agreement between William and Elizabeth is potentially vague.  What are the specific terms of the agreement? What is the duration of the agreement? Does Elizabeth have to provide services for William’s lifetime?  What happens if Elizabeth ceases providing services or dies first? Would this simple agreement be enforceable if there were no writing?  These questions make litigation of these matters a near certainty.

The many issues relating to promises to make a will

How do you prove the existence of an oral agreement?

The ability to enter into an oral contract to make a will leads to many problems as the courts attempt to enforce valid agreements, while still trying to effectively dispose of fraudulent agreements.  It can be challenging to prove the existence of an oral agreement under any circumstance.  The ability to bring an oral contract to make a will claim may lead to parties performing legal contortionism in order to adequately plead the existence of an agreement which may be enforceable in a court of equity.  In the context of a contract to make a will claim, it is even more challenging to prove or disprove the existence of an agreement as generally one of the parties to the contract is deceased.  Thus, at least one material witness cannot testify, and, if the agreement is oral, there is no writing to substantiate the alleged agreement.

The statute of frauds requires most agreements to be in writing to prevent people from concocting agreements which do not exist. (See Cal. Civ. Code § 1624.)  When an agreement involves real property, a writing becomes even more important due to the presumption that the owner of legal title to the property is the owner of the full beneficial title. (See Cal. Evid. Code § 662.)  If your name is on the deed, there is a legal presumption that you own the property.  The statute of frauds is important for a reason.  The formality of a writing requirement dramatically reduces the likelihood that a person could simply invent a fake agreement and enforce such an agreement to his or her benefit.

California Probate Code section 21700 sets forth the criteria for when a contract to make a will can be enforced.  Absent the existence of a writing, a contract to make a will can be established by clear and convincing evidence of an agreement that is enforceable in equity.  This is the highest evidentiary standard in civil litigation.  The idea is that if there are enough indicia of an agreement, then even an oral agreement will be enforced.  However, claimants with little to no evidence (likely because the agreements are imaginary or completely contrived) may be able to get out the starting gates with a scintilla of evidence of an agreement, which may or may not be enforceable in equity.  Depending on the evidence and the unique facts surrounding the purported agreement, an evidentiary hearing may be warranted.  On the other hand, persons with completely legitimate agreements which were never memorialized in writing may be protected from an unfair or inequitable result due to his or her failure to comply with the statute of frauds.  This is particularly true when, for all intents and purposes, the parties acted as though there was an agreement.

How do you know when there is a breach of the agreement?

You will often not be able to tell whether the decedent lived up to his or her side of the deal until the decedent has died and the decedent’s estate plan (or lack of estate plan) is revealed.  If you were supposed to be in the decedent’s estate plan, but were not included, and are also not an heir of the decedent, you may never even receive notice of any proceeding regarding the decedent’s estate or any administration of the decedent’s trust.

Essentially, the decedent’s promise is akin to Popeye’s friend Wimpy’s promise that “[he’ll] gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”.  You will often not be able to tell whether the decedent lived up to his or her side of the deal until some future time.  With respect to Wimpy, the telling time period is when Tuesday comes and goes without any payment by Wimpy for the hamburger.  With respect to a decedent’s promise to provide for another upon his or her death, it is normally only when the decedent has died that one can determine whether the agreement was honored by the decedent.  At that point, the decedent has likely already received something of value (just like Wimpy with the hamburger) and may not be particularly inclined to honor his or her promise in the future.  Like in the cartoons, Wimpy may promise to pay for his hamburger on Tuesday, but he simply will not be around on Tuesday when the debt should be collected.  This makes enforcement of the debt challenging.

Of course, there are always exceptions, but it can be difficult to determine when such a promise is breached.  Certainly, if Wimpy did not pay up on Monday, he would likely not be in breach of the agreement.  However, if Wimpy stated on Monday that he was moving across the country, had no intention of ever paying for his hamburger, and had in general taken steps in contravention of his promise to pay for the hamburger, it may be possible to enforce the agreement prior to waiting until Tuesday.  Likewise, a decedent can typically create or revise a will up until his or her death, and is not generally in breach of his or her agreement until the decedent’s death.  However, if the decedent promised to give a house to a person under the decedent’s will, and then actively tried to sell it prior to the decedent’s death in contravention of the agreement, it may be possible to enforce this promise prior to the decedent’s death.  Clearly, breach of such a claim is largely fact specific.

Should you try to enforce the agreement?                                                   

Many wills and trusts contain express language in which the decedent states that he or she has not entered into any contracts to make a will.  Thus, enforcement of the agreement may very clearly be in contravention of the decedent’s existing estate plan.  As such, a party trying to enforce a contract to make a will should be mindful that enforcement of such a claim may be a creditor’s claim, i.e. a claim for liability of the decedent.  If the claimant already inherits under the decedent’s estate plan, the claimant should evaluate whether such a claim would trigger enforcement of the instrument’s no-contest clause.  In addition to incurring expenses of litigation, it may not make sense to enforce such a claim if there is a risk of losing one’s inheritance if the no-contest clause is triggered.  It is important to timely evaluate and bring such a claim as various statute of limitations or other time bars may be in effect to prevent a person from bring a contract to make a will claim.

How do you enforce the agreement? 

Remedies can include money damages or quasi-specific performance.  If the decedent promised to leave a specific sum of money, then money damages would be appropriate.  If the decedent promised real property or something otherwise unique, then quasi-specific performance may be the preferred remedy, so that the person can obtain exactly what was promised, i.e. the real property or other unique asset.  However, if money damages will adequately compensate for the breach, then enforcement of the promise in equity is unlikely.


Contracts to make a will can be difficult claims to prove and enforce. While this litigation can be frustrating when it appears that an agreement has been fabricated and the decedent is no longer around to testify to contradict the fraudulent claim, with the help of experienced trusts and estates litigators these claims can be successfully defeated.  Further, in the event that there is simply no writing memorializing a valid agreement, experienced trusts and estates litigators can aid in bringing such a claim so as to hopefully circumvent the statute of frauds.

When Do You NOT have the Right to Remain Silent? Conservatorship Proceedings and Equal Protection Clause Claims

Thanks to Law and Order, we’re all familiar with the beginning of a person’s Miranda Warning: “You have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”  What many may not know, however, is that this is a right only afforded to those involved in criminal proceedings.  In civil cases, there is no constitutional right to refuse to testify.  Historically, this has been intended to ensure that our criminal justice system—which can deprive a person of their freedom, property, and even their life—remains accusatorial, not inquisitorial.  A civil matter, on the other hand, is meant to resolve disputes between individuals and does not threaten the same consequences, so public policy favors bringing forth the information that a person’s testimony offers , even if it is against his or her self-interest.

A recent case, however, raised the somewhat murkier question of what standard should apply in conservatorship proceedings.  Under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (the “LPS Act”), if a person is found to be gravely disabled as the result of a mental disorder and unable to provide for his or her own food, clothing, and shelter, he or she may be committed to an involuntary conservatorship.  In this situation, a conservator makes all decisions regarding the person’s living situation, finances, and medical care, and in some cases the conservatee may be confined to an institutional care setting.  In the Conservatorship of the Person and Estate of Bryan S. [Citation] (Conservatorship of Bryan S.), the proposed conservatee, Bryan, argued that he should not have been forced to testify at his conservatorship trial.  Bryan claimed that he was similarly situated to those found not guilty by reason of insanity and those subject to sexually violent predator and mentally disordered offender proceedings, all three of which classes have been found to have the right not to testify.  Under the equal protection clause of the Constitution, Bryan argued, he should be entitled to the same rights.

While the history and nuance of the equal protection clause is extremely complex, at its most basic, it is meant to ensure that the state applies its laws equally to all.  The threshold question of whether equal protection principles apply is whether the state has adopted a classification that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner.  In regards to potential conservatees under the LPS Act, the California Court of Appeals clarified in the Conservatorship of Bryan S. that such individuals are not similarly situated to individuals facing commitment as a result of criminal acts related to a mental health condition.  Therefore, LPS Act conservatees are not similarly situated and not entitled to refuse to testify at their conservatorship trials.

As the court explained, the LPS Act was designed to provide prompt evaluation and treatment for individuals with mental health disorders and to provide them with individualized treatment, supervision, and placement options, including being placed in non-institutional settings with family or friends, if appropriate.  The LPS Act is meant to protect public safety, but also to protect people with mental health disorders from criminal acts.

While Conservatorship of Bryan S. clarifies that a LPS Act conservatee cannot refuse to testify at his or her trial, it also confirms that, consistent with prior case law, a prospective conservatee will not be compelled to answer questions that may incriminate him or her in a criminal matter.   So while the right to remain silent does not apply in all settings, it is absolute in its protection against self-incrimination, at least for criminal acts.

Casebriefs – How Recent Decisions Could Impact You

In our monthly department meetings, the trusts and estates group at Weintraub keeps current by reviewing recent cases and discussing how they could affect our practice. See below for some highlights from the past few months:

Pena v. Dey – When is Self-Help Enforceable?

(Filed August 30, 2019)

The gist:

James Robert Anderson established a living trust in 2004, which he amended in 2008. He was diagnosed with abdominal cancer and brain cancer in 2011. After his diagnoses, Anderson became closer with an existing friend, Grey Dey, who eventually moved in with Anderson and provided care to him until Anderson’s death in May 2014.

In February 2014, Anderson contacted a new attorney, requesting changes to his trust. Anderson sent the attorney a marked up copy of a section of the first amendment that created fifteen separate trust shares of varying percentages to be distributed to different beneficiaries. Anderson altered eleven of those gifts, adding notes in margins, and attached a separate list of beneficiaries to divide the largest share. Anderson wrote a note to his attorney on a Post-it note that read, “Hi Scott, Here they are. First one is 2004. Second is 2008. Enjoy! Best, Rob.”

There’s No Place Like Home – Heightened Evidentiary Standard for Moving Conservatees from Their Personal Residence

Frequently when a conservatorship proceeding is commenced, the proposed conservatee is residing in his or her personal residence. Having a conservatorship established can be a distressing experience for a conservatee who has awareness of the effect of such a proceeding. One primary concern may be whether there is going to be a change to living arrangements with which the conservatee has been familiar, sometimes for decades. Naturally, it is commonplace for a conservatee to express that they “don’t want to go to a care home.” In recognition of the need to affirmatively preserve the right of conservatees to remain in their own personal residence, the California Legislature passed an amendment to existing law which applies a higher evidentiary standard before a conservator may move a conservatee from his or her personal residence.

Living in the Personal Residence. Under existing law, it is presumed that the personal residence of the conservatee at the time of the commencement of the conservatorship is the least restrictive appropriate residence for the conservatee. That presumption may be overcome by a preponderance of the evidence. As of January 1, 2020, the presumption that the personal residence of the conservatee at the time of the commencement of the conservatorship is the least restrictive appropriate residence for the conservatee may be overcome only on a showing of clear and convincing evidence, which is a higher standard.

How to Get Rid of a Dead Body

California Trusts and Estates Quarterly

This article was first published in Volume 25, Issue 3, 2019 of the California Trusts and Estates Quarterly, reprinted by permission.

Those of us who watched AMC’s hit drama “Breaking Bad” may recall the scene in the pilot episode where Walt and Jesse set out to dissolve a dead body in hydrofluoric acid. Jesse neglects to take Walt’s (the chemistry teacher’s) advice to dissolve the body in a plastic container and instead uses a bathtub, only to have the acid melt through the dead body and the tub, and come crashing through the floor supporting the tub, and the floor below that. Here, there is some truth in fiction. Pursuant to Assembly Bill 967, signed by Governor Brown in 2017, the liquification of human remains will be permitted soon, at least for professionals and entities operating a licensed hydrolysis facility where such processes may be carried out. The new law becomes operative on July 1, 2020.

Popular culture and criminal activity aside, this article sets out to summarize the basics of disposing of human remains, covering issues such as who has control over the remains, which laws and documents govern such control, the transportation and disposition of remains, and the removal of remains after burial.

To read the full article please click here.

Important Tax and Estate Planning Update

You may have heard by now that the Gift and Estate Tax exemption amount was increased by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which became effective on January 1, 2018. This article is to highlight some of the key estate planning issues under the new tax law.

In 2019, the Gift and Estate Tax exemption as adjusted for inflation is $11.4 million, and in 2020, the exemption amount will be increased to $11,580,000. Historically, this is the highest the exemption has ever been. The exemption will continue to increase incrementally due to a built-in inflation adjustment until January 1, 2026, when, absent an act of Congress, the exemption will be decreased to about $6 million. The value of a decedent’s estate in excess of the available exemption upon death will be subject to a 40% estate tax.

This dramatic increase (and future expected decrease) in exemption poses a range of estate planning issues which affect all clients, regardless of the amount of your wealth. There are also some opportunities for tax savings.