If you’d like to see the documents filed so far in the Michael Jackson probate matter, here they are: http://www.scribd.com/doc/16974369/Michael-Jackson-Probate-Filings.
In brief, Michael Jackson’s parents are asking the court to appoint Katherine Jackson (Michael’s mother) as guardian of his three children, as administrator of his estate, and as a special administrator to immediately assume control of his assets.
The probate petition is drafted as if Michael Jackson didn’t have a will; supposedly, an attorney has an original will signed by Michael Jackson which will be filed for probate. In California, a person in possession of a decedent’s will has 30 days from the death to deposit the will with the superior court in the county where the decedent lived.
Clients frequently ask “Can I change my living trust by crossing things out and writing in new parts? The California Court of Appeals answered that question last week: not if you want your changes to stick.
In Cory v. Toscano, the person who created the trust gave “(a) To Elaine [last name omitted here for privacy] the balance remaining from the sale of my real property in Los Banos . . .”
At some later point, the creator of the trust apparently changed his mind, adding in his own handwriting the notation “^ 25% of” to the paragraph, so that the changed version said “(a) To Elaine, 25% of the balance . . .” The handwritten changes were dated and had the initials of the trust’s creator.
It’s no surprise that after the trust creator died, Elaine, whose inheritance was cut by 75%, wanted to challenge the modification to the trust. Elaine’s attorney filed a special petition requesting a court ruling on the question of whether or not the handwritten changes to the trust were protected by the trust’s “no contest” clause. The Court of Appeals ruled that the handwritten changes were not protected by the no contest clause – meaning that Elaine can challenge whether or not they were an effective modification to the trust. If Elaine wins her challenge, she gets the full value of the Los Banos property. If Elaine loses her challenge, she gets the same 25% she would have received if she hadn’t brought her challenge. She’ll have to pay attorney’s fees for her challenge – but it looks from public records like the property is worth at least $800,000, so she’s balancing spending a few tens of thousands of dollars against potentially recovering $600,000.
What can we learn from this case? The first lesson is that handwritten, informal changes are likely to cause problems. The second lesson is that piecemeal amendments to trusts are invitations for problems – even if the trust creator had asked his attorney to formalize this change, it would have been obvious to Elaine that her $800,000 inheritance just turned into a $200,000 inheritance; and the change to the trust that reduced her inheritance wasn’t protected by the no contest clause.
In California, heirs and beneficiaries are entitled to a complete copy of the “Terms of the Trust” – this includes the original document, and any amendments. It does not include previous versions of the trust if they have been entirely replaced by a restated trust. If your trust document (and amendments) show a series of changes, where some beneficiaries’ shares grow or shrink, you should know that the beneficiaries will eventually see all of the different versions. Making the changes in small discrete steps makes it tempting for a family member or friend to challenge “just the last change” and ask a judge to go back to an earlier version of the trust that’s more favorable to them.
My office practice is to avoid partial amendments whenever possible – the small amount of money saved by not restating the document is tiny compared to the potential financial and emotional burden on beneficiaries and successor trustees when all of the piecemeal amendments are eventually revealed after death. If the trust had been “amended and restated in full” to match the creator’s wishes, it might be that Elaine would never know about the $600,000 she didn’t get, she would have been happy with her $200,000 gift, there would have been no lawsuit, and the property would already be sold.
By saving a few hundred dollars in legal fees or a trip to the attorney’s office, the trust creator has now caused what must be approaching a hundred thousand dollars in legal fees for this fight, and years of delay in estate administration.
A recent California court decision illustrates the importance of reading carefully and paying attention, even when signing apparently harmless documents.
In Hogan v. Country Villa Health Services, a California appellate court enforced an arbitration clause in admission documents for a skilled nursing facility, signed by an elderly woman’s daughter upon admission. When the elderly woman later died while a patient of the skilled nursing facility, her family wanted to sue for wrongful death, eder abuse, and violation of patient rights.
The skilled nursing facility asked the court to rule that the family was forced to bring their elder abuse claim before an arbitrator instead of to a jury, because of the documents signed at the time of admission. The family argued that, even though the daughter had a statutory Heathcare Power of Attorney form signed by her mother, the mother had not authorized the daughter to waive her right to a jury trial in a real courtroom.
The Appeals Court held that the California statutory Advance Health Care Directive form (see Probate Code section 4701), as it was signed by the mother, was sufficient to give the daughter the power to agree to the arbitration agreement.
The unfortunate result is that the elder abuse claim will not be heard in a public forum – even though it’s likely that neither the mother nor the daughter had any idea that was a potential outcome when they signed the documents.
This is an important reminder to always read what you sign – and that it’s helpful to get assistance from someone who can advise you about unexpected consequences, such as the waiver of the right to a trial – because sometimes simple forms have complicated, unintended consequences.
A California appellate court issued an opinion on February 22, 2007 in Young v. McCoy 2007 Cal App Lexis 224 which will provide encouragement and comfort to trust creators who seek to preserve assets for their beneficiaries.
The court ruled that a creditor cannot force the trustee of a discretionary trust to make a distribution to the beneficiary, if the trustee has reasonably determined that the beneficiary does not need a distribution to provide for their health, education, maintenance, or support. The practical effect is that – since there is no distribution – the creditor cannot get their hands on the funds which have been preserved for the beneficiary.
This opinion concerns a case where the beneficiary was convicted of attempted murder – but it is likely to be helpful to people in much more mundane circumstances faced by many families, such as divorce, business disputes, and even bankruptcy created by overwhelming medical bills following catastrophic injury or illness.
If your estate plan does not provide asset protection for your family – or if you are using the state’s default estate plan, which does not provide asset protection for beneficiaries – you should think seriously about sitting down with competent estate planning counsel to make sure you’re doing everything you can to provide for the people who depend on you, and the people you care about most.