In the probate court, it is unlikely that every party will be satisfied with the outcome of a case. However, while it is rare, if you believe a mistake was made during the court proceedings that led to an imbalanced or incorrect ruling, requesting an appellate court to review the decision may be an option that’s available to you.
If you act promptly and have an attorney with substantial appellate court experience by your side, you may be able to successfully appeal a probate court decision.
For a probate court appeal to have merit, your case must satisfy certain criteria. Not only will you have to explain the law and facts that show prejudicial error by the probate court, but you also will have to comply with all appeals procedures if you are to have any chance of winning your appeal—and these procedures are different from the procedures you and your trial attorney had to follow in your probate court trial.
One of the most important things to be mindful of during the probate appeals process is time limits. Probate court appeals must be brought within a short, specified time after the final order is entered; otherwise, they are time-barred. California Rule of Court 8.104(a)(1) sets the time limits for appeals, which may be as short as 60 days after the judgment or order is entered. Ideally, you should retain a probate appeals attorney as soon as you are notified of the probate court’s unfavorable decision.
California law is specific about the types of probate decisions that can be appealed. It is California Probate Code section 1300 that governs general appealable probate decisions and allows appeals from the making of, or the refusal to make, any of the following orders:
“(a) Directing, authorizing, approving, or confirming the sale, lease, encumbrance, grant of an option, purchase, conveyance, or exchange of property.
(b) Settling an account of a fiduciary.
(c) Authorizing, instructing, or directing a fiduciary, or approving or confirming the acts of a fiduciary.
(d) Directing or allowing payment of a debt, claim, or cost.
(e) Fixing, authorizing, allowing, or directing payment of compensation or expenses of an attorney.
(f) Fixing, directing, authorizing, or allowing payment of the compensation or expenses of a fiduciary.
(g) Surcharging, removing, or discharging a fiduciary.
(h) Transferring the property of the estate to a fiduciary in another jurisdiction.
(i) Allowing or denying a petition of the fiduciary to resign.
(j) Discharging a surety on the bond of a fiduciary.
(k) Adjudicating the merits of a claim made under Part 19 (commencing with Section 850) of Division 2.”
In regard to a decedent’s estate specifically, California Probate Code section 1303 allows an appeal from the granting, or refusal to grant, these orders:
“(a) Granting or revoking letters to a personal representative, except letters of special administration or letters of special administration with general powers.
(b) Admitting a will to probate or revoking the probate of a will.
(c) Setting aside a small estate under Section 6609.
(d) Setting apart a probate homestead or property claimed to be exempt from enforcement of a money judgment.
(e) Granting, modifying, or terminating a family allowance.
(f) Determining heirship, succession, entitlement, or the persons to whom distribution should be made.
(g) Directing distribution of property.
(h) Determining that property passes to, or confirming that property belongs to, the surviving spouse under Section 13656.
(i) Authorizing a personal representative to invest or reinvest surplus money under Section 9732.
(j) Determining whether an action constitutes a contest under former Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 21320) of Part 3 of Division 11, as that chapter read prior to its repeal by Chapter 174 of the Statutes of 2008.
(k) Determining the priority of debts under Chapter 3 (commencing with Section 11440) of Part 9 of Division 7.
As for trusts, California Probate Code section 1304 allows an appeal from the granting, or refusal to grant, these orders:
“(a) Any final order under Chapter 3 (commencing with Section 17200) of Part 5 of Division 9, except the following:
(1) Compelling the trustee to submit an account or report acts as trustee.
(2) Accepting the resignation of the trustee.
(b) Any final order under Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 19020) of Part 8 of Division 9.
(d) Determining whether an action constitutes a contest under former Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 21320) of Part 3 of Division 11, as that chapter read prior to its repeal by Chapter 174 of the Statutes of 2008.”
There also are specific statutes governing appeals from protective proceedings, such as guardianships and conservatorships (California Probate Code section 1301), and from cases under the Conservatorship Jurisdiction Act (California Probate Code section 1301.5), Power of Attorney Law (California Probate Code section 1302), and Health Care Decisions Law (California Probate Code section 1302.5).
Executors and administrators may have been named in a fiduciary misconduct claim or litigated on behalf of the estate they represent. Keystone can help executors and administrators bring or defend a probate appeal.
Beneficiaries may have previously litigated in a will or trust dispute, fiduciary misconduct claim, financial abuse claim, or other type of probate matter. Keystone can help beneficiaries bring or defend a probate appeal.
Conservators may have been brought to court for a conservatorship abuse matter or litigated on behalf of the adult they were charged with protecting. Keystone can assist conservators with bringing or defending a probate appeal.
Keystone’s client was the godson of the decedent, and he, along with the decedent’s property manager, were named as 50/50 beneficiaries and co-trustees of the decedent’s trust. The decedent, however, subsequently executed a trust amendment that reduced his godson’s share to $200,000 and increased the property manager’s share to 100% of his multimillion-dollar estate. Keystone and its co-counsel challenged the amendment by alleging that the property manager had not only unduly influenced the decedent, but also had committed financial elder abuse against him. We additionally asserted that the property manager was a prohibited transferee who transcribed the amendment. After a multi-day trial, the court invalidated the amendment and disinherited the property manager, who, as a result, was disqualified from receiving his 50% share under the terms of the original trust. The court also awarded Keystone’s client his attorney’s fees and costs in the amount of $324,719.96. The property manager appealed the probate court’s decision; however, the appellate court affirmed the ruling.
In the published decision Blech vs. Blech, a decedent had created a trust that named his four children as the primary beneficiaries. The trust contained a spendthrift clause, which meant that beneficiaries would not be permitted to sell, assign, transfer or give away their interests in the trust to third parties, nor would third parties be permitted to take or buy any of the beneficiaries’ interests.
The terms of the trust called for the trustee to pay a percentage of the principal to beneficiaries annually on the anniversary of the decedent’s death. However, almost immediately following the decedent’s death, litigation ensued between the beneficiaries that resulted in a settlement agreement, which, among other things, called for one of the beneficiaries to pay Keystone’s client, another beneficiary, a settlement amount. The beneficiary failed to fulfill this obligation, so Keystone’s client secured a judgment against him and later filed a petition with the probate court seeking to apply the debtor-beneficiary’s annual distribution to the satisfaction of the judgment. Due to the existence of a spendthrift clause, the probate court limited the amount Keystone’s client could secure to 25% of each annual distribution received by the debtor-beneficiary. Around this same time, the California Supreme Court in Carmack vs. Reynolds expanded the reach of creditors to access trust distributions, even if the trust in question has a spendthrift clause. Because of this ruling, Keystone’s client was able to secure a judgment to secure the remaining 75% of the debtor-beneficiary’s trust distributions. The debtor-beneficiary appealed the decision; however, the appellate court sided with Keystone’s client and upheld the probate court’s ruling. With this case, Keystone set the standard for how to secure the entirety of a debtor-beneficiary’s distribution from a spendthrift trust to satisfy a judgment.
In the published decision Sefton vs. Sefton, a Keystone attorney represented a plaintiff who was appealing a prior probate court decision that resulted in him in not receiving a substantial share of his grandfather’s trust. When the grandfather created his trust in 1955, he gave his son, the client’s father, a lifetime estate, with the remainder going to “his living issue,” which, at the time the trust was executed, automatically gave the father non-exclusive power of appointment. In other words, every one of the father’s living issue would be entitled to receive a substantial share of the trust estate. The father’s living issue included the client (the only child from his first marriage), the son from his second marriage, the daughter from his second marriage, and the father’s grandchildren from his second marriage. However, in 1970, the California legislature enacted Probate Code Section 652, which modified the presumption of power of appointment to be exclusive. This meant that the father could exclude any one of his living issue, so long as the grandfather’s trust did not designate to them a minimum or maximum distribution. When the father died, he left portions of his life estate to his children from the second marriage, but completely excluded the client. The client, in turn, filed a petition with the probate court claiming that not only did his father’s use of the power of appointment go beyond the scope of the authority provided to him by the grandfather, but also that he was entitled to a portion of the trust estate. An objection was filed by the client’s half-brother stating that the new laws regarding power of appointment, not the laws in effect at the time of the grandfather’s execution of his trust, controlled; therefore, the father did have the right to exclude the client. The court sided with the respondent, causing the client to file an appeal. On appeal, the court reversed the lower court’s decision, finding that the father’s power of appointment was non-exclusive. This meant that the client was, in fact, entitled to a substantial inheritance in the amount of $565,350 plus interest.
The client of Keystone’s attorney had been named as a beneficiary of his mother’s trust, along with his sister, his sister’s son and an educational institution. However, his sister, in her capacity as successor trustee, filed a petition to reform the trust on the grounds that its terms had been misrepresented by the drafter, leading to the settlor mistakenly signing the trust believing that it reflected her intent. Additionally, the trust did not contain the distribution plan the settlor had outlined to her attorney. The sister proposed to amend the trust to contain the decedent’s true intent, which, according to her, required that the principal that remained to be equally distributed to her and her son after 10 years of the assets remaining in trust. The trust at issue had a no-contest clause, which the client of Keystone’s attorney believed had been violated by his sister’s reformation petition because it was seeking to invalidate the provisions of the trust on the basis of undue influence, fraud and duress. He filed a Petition for Instructions with the court to determine whether the reformation petition violated the no-contest clause and whether his sister had probable cause to file it. In response, his sister filed an Anti-SLAAP motion, which is a motion to dismiss a case prior to the discovery phase of litigation, that the court granted. The client then proceeded to take the case to an appellate court, where he argued that the probate court’s decision should be reversed since he likely would have prevailed in court had his petition been granted. The appellate court agreed that the client’s case had sufficient merit to potentially succeed during probate proceedings, so it reversed the decision, giving the client a chance at inheriting from his mother’s trust.
Our attorneys focus exclusively on probate law and have extensive knowledge of the field as a result. We will utilize this knowledge to serve you in bringing or defending your probate appeals case. Members of our team have earned many accomplishments and accolades, including:
We serve all cities and counties in California, including but not limited to the following:
Yes, there are strict time limits for filing a probate appeal that may be as short as 60 days from when the final judgment or order is entered by the probate court. A lawyer can provide further clarification about the time limits for your specific case.
Information about the types of probate decisions that can be appealed can be found in California Probate Code sections 1300, 1303 and 1304. But remember: A decision cannot be appealed simply because you disagree with it; the probate court should have made an error that affected the outcome of the case.
Upon winning a probate appeal, the appellate court will overturn the lower court’s decision in whole or in part. At this time, the case will return to probate court to take action consistent with the appellate judgment.
Should you lose your appeal, the probate court’s final decision will remain intact. At this point, you and your probate appeals lawyer can discuss the possibility of appealing to a higher court.