October 9, 2015

Standing to Appeal in a Probate Matter

When a civil litigant loses at the trial court in California, they have two options. They can either (1) accept the result of the case or (2) appeal the decision to a California appellate court, the Court of Appeal. For reference, a civil case might be a breach of contract case, a landlord-tenant dispute or a personal injury matter. 

The same holds true for a probate litigant who loses at the trial court. They can either (1) accept the result of the case or (2) appeal the decision to the appellate court. However, the ability to appeal also extends to an heir or beneficiary that did not participate in the case at the trial court. Estate of Zabriskie (1979) 96 CA3d 571. A probate litigation matter might be a will contest, a trust contest or a trustee removal petition.

The ability of a non-party heir or beneficiary to appeal is an exception to the general rule that the appealing party must have participated in the trial court proceedings and been aggrieved by a ruling. CCP § 902. The ability of a non-party heir or beneficiary to appeal is very important because it allows them to not be bound by an adverse ruling they were not a party to originally. Hence, an adverse ruling at the trial court is not fatal to their claim if for whatever reason they did not participate in the trial court proceedings. The following example illustrates this point.

Wilbur is a wealthy bachelor who lives in Monte Sereno, CA. His heirs are his brother Bob and sister Sally. Prior to his passing, Wilbur is coerced into leaving his entire estate to his caretaker through a trust (a general no-no in California). When Wilbur passes away and Bob is provided a copy of Wilbur's trust, he discovers that the caretaker is the sole beneficiary of Wilbur's estate. Bob then files an action to invalidate the transfer because the caretaker is presumptively a prohibited transferee of Wilbur's estate. 

However, Bob is of modest means and can only afford an incompetent attorney. Since Wilbur's caretaker can access trust funds to defend herself, she hires very experienced counsel and Bob's petition to invalidate the transfer is denied because of his attorney's incompetence.

During this time, Sally is backpacking through Europe and therefore is unaware of the proceedings and did not participate. When Sally returns, Bob informs her of the trial court's ruling. Since Sally is more affluent than Bob, she hires a seasoned attorney to appeal the decision even though she was not a party to the trial court proceedings. The seasoned attorney prevails on appeal and Bob and Sally are made the beneficiaries of Wilbur's estate, as the court of appeal invalidates Wilbur's trust due to the distribution to the caretaker.