April 25, 2014

Estate of Sobol - Standing to Challenge a Will

The California probate code requires that only a certain class of individuals can challenge a will. In legalese, this is known as standing. 

An individual who wishes to contest a will must be considered an “interested person." Prob C §48(a). An “interested person” is defined as an heir, devisee, child, spouse, creditor, beneficiary or any other person having a property right in or claim against a trust estate or decedent's estate that may be affected by the proceeding, any person having priority for appointment as personal representative, or a fiduciary representing an interested person. Prob C §48(a). For example, a beneficiary of a subsequent will has standing to contest an earlier will that affects their bequest. Estate of Powers (1979) 91 CA3d 715. Although, “the meaning of ‘interested person’ as it relates to particular persons may vary from time to time and shall be determined according to the particular purposes of, and matter involved in, any proceeding." Prob C §48(b). 

A recent California Court of Appeal decision addressed the standing issue for an ex-executor involving a very large estate. Estate of Sobol ____ Cal App. 4th ___ (2014).

On December 23, 2010 Sonia Sobol drafted a will which named Jay Rose as her executor and a trust which also named Jay Rose as trustee. On September 27, 2012, Ms. Sobol amended her will and replaced Jay Rose as the executor with her bankruptcy attorney Terry Shaylin along with Dolores Diehl and Maria Da Costa-Iyer. Ms. Sobol passed away a few months later on December 15, 2012. The estimated value of her estate, per the opinion, was $22M. 

The executors of the 2012 will then filed a petition to have the will admitted to probate. Mr. Rose objected to the petition, arguing incapacity, fraud and elder abuse. Mr. Rose's intent was to invalidate the 2012 will and have the 2010 will become the operative instrument. The petitioners demurred to his objection, stating that Mr. Rose lacked standing to challenge the will’s validity. In particular, the petitioners asserted that Mr. Rose was not an “interested person” as defined by the California probate code and therefore lacked standing to challenge the validity of the 2012 will. The trial court sustained the demurer without leave to amend, thereby essentially dismissing Mr. Rose’s objection. This decision was then appealed to the California Court of Appeal. 

The Court of Appeal found that Mr. Rose was simply a former executor who otherwise had no affiliation to the estate. He was not a beneficiary of Ms. Sobol’s will, nor was he an heir, i.e. next of kin via intestate succession. Hence, Mr. Rose lacked the requisite standing necessary to contest Ms. Sobol’s 2012 will and his objection was properly dismissed by the trial court.