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Trustworthy Representation for Your Estate Litigation Matters 

Grief, greed and a desire to rectify perceived family discourse seem to be the central themes of most cases involving disputes among siblings. This becomes especially acute when one or more siblings are nominated to serve as fiduciaries. For many others, old age and incapacity eventually dictate that an elderly parent will not be able to successfully manage the financial affairs of a complicated trust that was created in better times. We listen carefully to your circumstances, explain your legal options and help you make smart choices.  

 

At Van Dyke & Associates, APLC, in San Diego, our attorneys focus exclusively on trust and estate litigation. With over two decades of experience, we are uniquely qualified to litigate petitions in probate court to efficiently and promptly resolve these complex legal problems throughout California.  

Resolving Contentious Trusts & Estates Disputes on Favorable Terms

Trusts and estates are repositories of wealth, and where you find wealth, you often find disputes over how assets should be distributed.

 

At Van Dyke & Associates, APLC, we provide guidance and advocacy for parties with an interest in a trust or estate. In short, we help our clients secure what is rightfully theirs and defend their performance when serving as a fiduciary. If you are embroiled in a complex dispute over a trust or an estate, we draw on decades of experience to resolve conflicts and bring you peace of mind. 

Trusts and Estates Litigation is the specialized practice of law involving the resolution and, if necessary, litigation of trust, estate, and protective proceedings. Trusts and Estates Litigation proceedings encompass a variety of matters including conservatorships, guardianships, will contests, claims or defense of claims of breaches of fiduciary duties by trustees and other fiduciaries (e.g., self-dealing, conflicts of interest, breach of trust), accountings, petitions for court instructions, issues of trust modification and reformation, allegations or protection from allegations of undue influence or fraudulent conveyances, and interpretation, advocacy, or defense of testamentary capacity and decedent’s intent. 
 

The practice of Trusts and Estates also includes litigation prevention matters including review and consultation of the policies, practices, and proposed actions of corporate, charitable, and individual fiduciaries against national or state standards for acceptable fiduciary conduct, such as the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, Uniform Principal and Income Act, and malpractice standards

All of these proceedings take place under the auspices of state Probate Codes and the nuanced procedures of the probate and surrogate courts – the statutory authority and venue under which nearly all trust, probate, guardianship, and conservatorship matters are adjudicated. 

 

Clients vary widely by case and include corporate or individual fiduciaries, such as trustees, executors, administrators, guardians, and conservators, and also include corporate and individual beneficiaries, conservatees, and wards. 
 

Lawyers practicing in this area combine substantive expertise in their states’ laws governing the administration of decedents’ estates, wills and intestate succession, trusts, conservatorships, guardianships, and other fiduciary issues with years of experience trying cases before both judges and juries. Lawyers also must take a collaborative and cross-disciplinary analytical approach with other disciplines such as estate planning, real estate, bankruptcy, corporate, and securities law, as well as complex civil and appellate law. 
 

Beyond the difficult legal proficiencies demanded of lawyers in this practice area, cases involving Trusts and Estates issues also require special skills and experience in dealing with the psychology of difficult family relationships, shattering emotional experiences, such as death and incapacity, and often ill-thought-out estate plans. 
 

In selecting counsel in a Trusts and Estates Litigation matter, it is critical to select experienced counsel as these types of cases are fraught with procedural, ethical, and state and federal tax minefields. The best of the best in this field not only bring substantial litigation and probate court experience, but also have additional skills as mediators, arbitrators, and negotiators in the non-litigated resolution of trust, estate, and protective proceedings controversies, helping resolve extremely difficult cases without costly litigation. 

 

Probate litigation involves disputes over the dispensation of wealth in a decedent’s estate, including but not limited to: 

·       Challenges to the validity or existence of a will  

·       Demands for accountings 

·       Allegations of breach of fiduciary duty 

·       Recovery of attorneys’ fees 

In short, when an interested party objects to actions taken during the probate process or in the creation of a purportedly valid will, there is potential for litigation. These cases can be very complex and might touch on various legal disciplines, including estate planning, family law, real estate, bankruptcy, tax law and securities law. Litigation is conducted under the state Probate Code, which has specific rules of procedure. For this reason, you should only trust your case to an attorney with ample experience in this discrete area of the law. 

Common Trusts & Estates Litigation Issues:

Beneficiary Rights —

Don’t let executors and trustees exceed their authority in managing the generational wealth of your family. We'll fight for your rightful inheritance. 

Claims Against Trust Property —

You can count on us for sound guidance in matters related to Probate Code 850/859 Petitions. 

Trustee Assignment & Support —

Often Trustees are appointed with no prior legal experience. The responsibility can be daunting and if not handled properly could result in breach of fiduciary duty and legal repercussions. 

Fiduciary Disputes —

In cases of contested accountings, our firm drafts cogent reports. Where appropriate, we litigate allegations of deficient fiduciary performance by the trustee. 

Glossary of Essential Terms

Trust —

A trust is a legal entity created to hold specific assets for the person creating the document, or Grantor. Many people create revocable living trusts to hold assets while they're alive. These trusts then become irrevocable upon their death. The purpose for doing this is to avoid the time and expense of probate, as well as to provide instructions for the management of their assets in the event they become incapacitated. 

Trustee —

Though the trust is not an actual person, the assets placed into the trust must be managed by a designated individual, known as the trustee. The trust creator or grantor designates a trustee, who has a fiduciary duty to manage trust assets in the best interests of beneficiaries as outlined in the trust agreement and comply with applicable laws when overseeing and allocating trust assets for the benefit of the trust beneficiaries. 

Beneficiary —

A beneficiary of trust is the individual or group of individuals for whom a trust is created. The trust creator or grantor designates beneficiaries who are to receive the assets of the trust as outlined in the trust documents.

Fiduciary —

A fiduciary is a person or organization that acts on behalf of another person or persons, putting their clients' interests ahead of their own, with a duty to preserve good faith and trust. Being a fiduciary thus requires being bound both legally and ethically to act in the other's best interests. 

Trusts & Estates FAQs

What is the difference between a trust and an estate? 

Both trusts and estates are legal entities that hold assets. The difference is that a trust is an instrument a grantor designs according to terms set forth in legal documents. The trust is created to be temporary or semi-permanent. By contrast, an estate is a naturally occurring entity, created when a person dies. At that time, with certain exceptions, assets that the person owns go into the estate. Assets placed in a trust, joint accounts, life insurance proceeds and some other types of property are excluded. The estate is not meant to be permanent; it merely serves during the period of transition, as ownership of assets passes to creditors and heirs. How the wealth is transferred during the probate process depends on instructions in the will.

How long do you have to contest a will or trust in California? 

In California, a will is not official until the Probate Court recognizes it. The process begins when the will is admitted to probate. From that point, you would have 120 days to raise your objections. As for a trust, the court is required under Probate Code 16061.7 to mail notice to beneficiaries once the trust is established. The deadline to object is 120 days from the date of the mailing. Our law firm represents interested parties in will and trust disputes. We recommend that you contact us as soon as possible once you realize that a potential problem exists. 

When should a trustee be removed? 

Where there is a clear conflict between co-trustees, such that they cannot work together and their strained relationship creates a stalemate concerning the management of trust property, such inaction may constitute grounds for removal of the co-trustees. Beneficiaries concerned about trust management might also petition to replace the trustee. Hostility and lack of cooperation affects the trust estate by hampering the administration of the trust and warrants removal. 

Why should you contest a trust? 

A trust is a legal entity, similar to a corporation, that a grantor establishes to hold property. The trust becomes the legal owner of assets placed within it. The trustee who manages the trust is a fiduciary with a duty to manage assets for the benefit of the trust beneficiaries. Would-be beneficiaries who believe the instrument is invalid can contest the formation of the trust based on: 

  • Lack of capacity — The grantor was not mentally fit at the time of the trust’s creation. 

  • Undue influence — A person close to the grantor manipulated the trust formation process. 

  • Coercion — The grantor was forced to establish the trust against his/her will. 

  • Fraud — The grantor was deceived about the terms of the trust. 

  • Material mistake — An error in the drafting of the trust is substantial enough to render the trust invalid. 

These arguments are also applicable to will contests. Beneficiaries might also disagree with a trustee’s management of the trust. An action against the trustee, however, would not challenge the validity of the trust. 

How do I prevent trust and estate litigation? 

Trust and estate litigation can be expensive and can deplete the resources of the trust or estate. Of course, allowing poor management to continue is not a viable alternative. Our firm often tries to prevent litigation through a review and consultation of the policies, practices and proposed actions of the fiduciaries. By comparing this record against national and state standards for acceptable fiduciary conduct, such as the Uniform Prudent Investor Act, Uniform Principal and Income Act, we can often reach a settlement that delivers a fair outcome without protracted legal proceedings.