A Shortcut Procedure for Suing a Decedent Without Involving the Probate Court
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In most instances, if a party wants to recover damages against a person who has passed away, a personal representative must be appointed on behalf of the estate so that the party can bring their suit. In fact, in a two-part blog post, Keystone outlined the steps a person must follow to litigate by or against a decedent’s estate. But Probate Code sections 550-555 (“Sections 550-555”) carve out an exception to the rule for bringing an action against a decedent who was covered by insurance, whereby a suit can be brought against the decedent’s estate without involving the Probate Court at all, albeit with some added limitations. These Probate Code sections may prove especially helpful to those attorneys whose practice focuses on personal injury, and who often deal with insurance companies.
Under Sections 550-555, an action to establish a decedent’s liability for which the decedent was protected by insurance may be commenced or continued against the decedent’s estate without the need to join the decedent’s personal representative or successor in interest. Thus, this applies both to actions pending at the death of the decedent as well as to actions commenced after the decedent’s death. Court approval is not required to bring a suit under Sections 550-555, and the Estate does not have to be under the threshold value for initiating probate under Probate Code section 13100.[i]
While at first glance these code sections may seem too good to be true, there are some very specific limitations in place that shape the context of bringing an action under Sections 550-555, as follows:
The primary limitation of note relates to damages. Damages sought under Sections 550-555 must be within the limits of the coverage of the insurance in place on the decedent. Further, a judgment in favor of the plaintiff in the action is enforceable only up to the insurance coverage amount, and not against any other property in the decedent’s estate.[ii] So for example, if you are bringing a suit under Sections 550-555 and the decedent’s insurance policy is for $300,000, the case goes to trial and a judgment of $350,000 is obtained, you would get $300,000 from the insurance company, but that’s all. You cannot get the difference from the estate of the decedent, even though the judgment was higher. Damages are not limited, however, if the personal representative is joined as a party to the action and if the plaintiff files a claim in compliance with Probate Code section 9390.[iii]
It is also important to note several specific procedural requirements applicable to such an action. Regarding the time to file – Probate Code section 551 provides, notwithstanding Section 366.2 of the Code of Civil Procedure (which provides that all claims against a decedent must be brought within one year of the decedent’s death, or are time barred), if the limitations period otherwise applicable to the action has not expired at the time of the decedent’s death, an action under Sections 550-555 may be commenced within one year after the expiration of the limitations period otherwise applicable to that cause of action. Additionally, the action must name the defendant, “Estate of (Name of decedent), Deceased”; the Summons for the action must be served on a person designated in writing by the insurer or, if none, on the insurer itself; and the proceedings are in the name of the estate, but are otherwise conducted in the same manner as if the action were against the personal representative.[iv] However, on motion of an interested person, or on its own motion, the court may, for good cause, order the appointment and substitution of a personal representative as the defendant[v] or consolidate the action with another pending action against the personal representative.[vi] These options for bringing in the personal representative of the estate could prove important, depending on the coverage limits of the insurance policy, the value of the estate, and/or the damages sought.
An example of such an action can be found in Meleski v. Estate of Hotlen – a case that discusses an exception to the general rule that a plaintiff’s overall recovery is limited to the amount of the decedent’s insurance coverage.[vii] In Meleski, plaintiff Amanda Meleski (“Amanda”) was injured in a car accident by Albert Hotlen (“Hotlen” or “Decedent”). When Amanda brought suit against Hotlen for her injuries, she discovered that he had since passed away, and his estate had no assets from which she could recover. Hotlen did, however, have a $100,000 insurance policy from Allstate Insurance Company (“Allstate”) which covered this accident. Amanda brought her action under Sections 550-555, which allowed her to serve her complaint on Allstate but limited her recovery of damages to the policy limits.[viii] At trial, Amanda was awarded a jury verdict of $180,613.86. There was no dispute that Allstate was obligated to pay $100,000 toward the judgment, but a dispute arose as to whether Allstate was obligated to pay some of Amanda’s litigation expenses in addition to the $100,000 policy coverage.
Before trial, Amanda made a settlement offer under Code of Civil Procedure section 998 (“Section 998”)[ix] to Allstate for $99,999. Allstate rejected the offer and countered with $40,000. At trial, Amanda received a more favorable result as she obtained a jury verdict of $180,613.86. The Court in Meleski found that Allstate was responsible for the $100,000 policy coverage plus Amanda’s post 998 offer costs, even though those costs brought the total amount recovered by Amanda in excess of the policy limits.[x] The reasoning behind this ruling was that the purpose of Section 998 is to encourage fair settlements, and here, Allstate rejected a fair settlement offer as a litigation tactic; as such, Allstate itself is responsible for the consequences of its own litigation strategy, and therefore is responsible for the costs associated with its rejection of a Section 998 offer, separate and apart from any coverage limits which may have been in place on the decedent.[xi]
Thus, as seen from this case example, Sections 550-555 provide a unique and helpful tool that attorneys can utilize to assist clients in obtaining favorable results against a decedent’s estate, in an efficient manner and without the expense associated with the formal appointment of a personal representative over the decedent’s estate. And in some instances, a person may be able to recover more than the policy limit.
[i] Probate Code section 13100 provides a streamlined out-of-court procedure for the post death transfer of a decedent’s assets which would normally be subject to a probate proceeding, but only applies when the gross value of the decedent’s estate does not exceed $150,000.
[ii] Prob. C. § 554.
[iv] Prob. C. § 552.
[v] Prob. C. § 552(b).
[vi] Prob. C. § 552(c).
[vii] (2018) 29 Cal.App.5th 616.
[viii] Id. at 621.
[ix] Section 998 provides that prior to commencement of trial, any party may serve an offer in writing upon any other party to the action, and if that offer is not accepted within 30 day of being made, it is deemed withdrawn, and if the party that rejected the offer fails to obtain a more favorable judgment at trial then the court may require that non-settling party to pay all post-offer costs (and in some instances fees) of the opposing party.
[x] Id. at 628.