December 12, 2023

Trusts Disputes - Civil Department or Probate Department?

In order for a court to properly adjudicate a case, it must have jurisdiction over the matter. For example, if the manager of the Oakland Athletics wanted to lodge a protest over a supposedly blown call by an umpire, they would lodge their protest with the commissioner of Major League Baseball, not the commissioner of the National Football League. In legal terms, Santa Clara County Superior Court would not have jurisdiction over a case involving real property located in Scotts Valley, CA because Scotts Valley is not located within Santa Clara County. Conversely, Santa Cruz County Superior Court would have jurisdiction over a case involving real property located in Scotts Valley, CA because Scotts Valley is located within Santa Cruz County.

Typically a trust matter is heard in the probate department of the superior court. For instance, the trust matter could be a challenge to the trust’s validity, a petition to remove the trustee, a petition to compel an accounting, a petition to determine the trust’s interpretation, etc. Still, it is not a certainty that every single probate matter will be heard in probate court. Of note, reference to a “probate court” is really just a reference to a particular department in the applicable superior court. For instance, Department 2 and Department 13 are currently the departments in which probate matters are heard in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The departments change periodically as the probate judges rotate over time.

A recent unpublished appellate decision addressed, amongst other issues, whether a civil department could properly hear a trust matter.

The appellant argued that “Department 52 of the Los Angeles County Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to decide this matter because jurisdiction relating to internal trust disputes resides exclusively in the probate department.”

The California Court of Appeal disagreed with this argument.

“Thus, although the Los Angeles Superior Court maintains a probate department, no authority vests that department with exclusive jurisdiction over probate matters. On the contrary, the California Constitution vests the superior court as a unified entity with plenary jurisdiction. As applicable here, even if the probate department has jurisdiction over internal trust affairs, that jurisdiction is nonexclusive. The superior court as a whole, which indisputably enjoys jurisdiction over actions involving contested interests in real property and the enforcement of judgments, also enjoys jurisdiction over ancillary issues that may arise in those actions, including issues relating to internal trust affairs.”

“The trial court therefore had jurisdiction to decide the merits of Lea's third-party claim to the Berryman property, even if that claim raised issues concerning internal affairs of the Family Trust.”

SMS Financial XIX LLC v. Stromberg, Los Angeles County Superior Court case no. B313902