August 25, 2016

Probate Orders

Probate participants naturally appreciate consistency. If a judge rules one way in a case in 2016, then presumably that ruling will apply in 2017 as well even if the case is before a different judge. "For one superior court judge, no matter how well intended, even if correct as a matter of law, to nullify a duly made, erroneous ruling of another superior court judge places the second judge in the role of a one-judge appellate court." In re Alberto (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 421, 427. Hence, it is error for a judge to modify a prior ruling unless there are highly persuasive reasons to do so.
People v. Riva (2003) 112 Cal.App.4th 981, 992.

Here in Santa Clara Co., we have had 3 probate judges the past couple of years, Judge Cain, Judge Persky and Judge Kuhnle. Thus it is not a given that the same judge will hear your matter for the duration of your case. Personally speaking, I've had a couple of probate matters in which the judicial assignment changed during the case.

For illustrative purposes, assume a disgruntled beneficiary petitions the court to order that the trustee provide an accounting. The judge orders the trustee to provide an accounting to the court in 4 months. Furthermore, if the accounting is acceptable, the trustee will be released from having to provide an annual accounting to the court. The beneficiary does not object to any portion of the order. Hence, the accounting would be a one-off matter. The judge who signs this order then retires and a new judge takes over the case.

Months later, the trustee files an accounting with the court. The judge is satisfied with the accounting and approves it. However, the disgruntled beneficiary vigorously argues that the trustee should be subject to ongoing court supervision on the day of the hearing. The beneficiary provides only oral testimony that the trustee "can't be trusted" because the trustee once made a bet against the Harlem Globetrotters as he believed the Washington Generals were "due." Despite the previous order that barred ongoing court supervision, the new judge agrees with the disgruntled beneficiary and orders that the trustee provide an annual accounting to the court. The trustee is well within his or her rights to appeal the order in that it directly contradicts the prior order.