February 9, 2017

Probate Code § 850 Petition

1969 Shelby GT350
The probate code permits an interested party to seek a judicial determination, i.e. an order, that property is owned by the decedent's estate or that the decedent's estate owns property that is really the property of another. See Probate Code § 850. The typical reason for filing a Probate Code § 850 petition is a dispute over the ownership of land. For example, the decedent held title to property that another party believes is rightfully theirs. Or title to property is held by another that is rightfully the decedent's. However, a recent unpublished appellate decision revolved around ownership of a rather unique item, a 1969 Shelby GT500.

Fredrickson v. Gersh, Case # BP125612, Los Angeles County Superior Court 

"Decedent (Gersh) and Frederickson became high school friends in the 1970's. In 1980, decedent was involve in a motorcycle accident that rendered him a quadriplegic. Despite his disability, decedent achieved success as an investment manager, until his physical condition precluded him from continuing to work. Decedent was able to sign his name to important documents by using a mouth pen. As for Frederickson, he worked in various automobile businesses, although not as a mechanic, and he had some experience in motorcycle repair.

In 1991, Frederickson purchased the subject vehicle, an inoperable 1969 Shelby GT500, a classic "muscle" car. The purchase price was $2,000, according to the application for title. Frederickson did nothing with the car for 13 years.

In 2004, Frederickson and decedent entered into a joint venture with respect to the car. Prior to that, they had not spoken in three years. They orally agreed that decedent would pay for what it would take to restore the car to showroom condition, with Frederickson to perform the physical labor needed to do so. There was no specific deadline for completion of the project. Thereafter, Frederickson brought the car to decedent's home and parked it in the garage where the work could be done.

In June 2004, Frederickson submitted a title application to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for registration of Frederickson and decedent as the owners of the car. The title application was purportedly signed on decedent's behalf by one of his then caregivers, "Otto Gonzalez P.O.A.," but there was no evidence that Gonzalez had a power of attorney.

On June 25, 2004, the DMV issued a title certificate showing Frederickson "or" decedent as the registered owners of the car. Notwithstanding the use of the word "or," neither the title application nor the certificate of title specifically stated that Frederickson and decedent were owners as joint tenants.
Thereafter, Frederickson disassembled the car and took voluminous notes and photographs of the parts for purposes of later reassembly. Decedent, in turn, spent about $40,000 for parts. The project dragged on for years, the work on the car was sporadic and it was never completed.

In 2007, decedent amended the living trust he created in 2002 (before decedent acquired an interest in the car), leaving his estate to his brother, Gersh, and their sister, Wilson. At the same time, decedent signed a pour-over will which left his assets to the Trust. In connection therewith, decedent specified in writing that the car was part of his personal property to be assigned to the Trust.

On January 9, 2010, decedent died."

Ultimately the trial court found that there was no joint tenancy between decedent and Frederickson. Since title was tenants in common, ownership of the car went as follows: (1) 50% to decedent's estate and (2) 50% to Frederickson. This decision was upheld on appeal.

Frederickson argued that title to the 1969 Shelby GT500 was held in joint tenancy. If so, Frederickson would automatically inherit decedent's 50% interest in the 1969 Shelby GT500 upon his death. Alas for Frederickson, neither the trial court nor the appellate court ruled his way.