May 29, 2014

Jury Trial in a Probate Case?

One of the hallmarks of the American judicial system is the right to have your case tried in front of your peers, i.e. a jury. This right to a jury trial is enshrined in the Seventh Amendment to the U.S Constitution. It says, in its entirety: "In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law." Since the U.S. Constitution was drafted and ratified in the 18th century, the threshold amount of $20 is obviously not an issue for just about any litigant. Usually litigants request a huge amount as damages instead of an infinitesimal amount. 

As a contemporary example, a criminal defendant such as Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez, who is charged with multiples counts of murder, is entitled to a jury trial. (Hold off on drafting him in your fantasy football pool even if somebody is very insistent that he is a late round bargain). Similarly, a disgruntled patron of In N Out Burger may ask for a jury trial for alleged personal injuries suffered as result of hot coffee being spilled on them.  

Conversely, in the probate context, there is generally no right to a jury trial. Probate Code § 825. Litigants in the probate context almost always have their matter determined by a bench trial. That is, the case is entirely decided by a judge instead of a jury.

For example, assume that a petition is filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court which alleges that the trustee breached a fiduciary duty and the beneficiary is seeking to have them removed. Since there is no jury trial, the litigants do not have to go through the trouble and expense of selecting a jury. However, juries are typically more sympathetic to a litigant's plight than a judge. On balance, since probate litigation can entail technical or complex matters, e.g. the interpretation of an ambiguous clause in a trust, a bench trial is seen by some lawyers as preferable. Most lay people are naturally not well-versed with testamentary language that is written in legalese.