“Disinherited Beneficiaries May Challenge Trusts, Court Says” – Bob Sacks Weighs in on Ruling in the Daily Journal

On January 23, 2020, the California Supreme Court reversed an appellate ruling and confirmed that probate courts may hear challenges from disinherited beneficiaries who allege they were removed from testamentary instruments as the result of foul play or incompetence.

In the Daily Journal article “Disinherited Beneficiaries May Challenge Trusts, Court Says,” Partner Bob Sacks commented on the ruling, stating “In the trust litigation world most practitioners thought the court of appeal decision was shocking, frankly, so most people will be very pleased with the court’s decision that, yes, folks disinherited can challenge amendments in probate court.”

The decision allows plaintiff Joan Barefoot’s trust case (Barefoot v. Jennings) to proceed, in which she alleges amendments to a family trust that came late in her mother’s life and removed Ms. Barefoot as a beneficiary and as the successor trustee of the instrument were invalid.

More broadly, the ruling clarifies a point of law that came into question when the lower courts found Barefoot lacked standing to bring her claims in probate court because she was technically no longer a beneficiary of the family trust. Section 17200 of the Probate Code, under which Barefoot sued, specifically lists trustees and beneficiaries as proper petitioners in disputes over “internal affairs” of trusts, but doesn’t reference disinherited beneficiaries. The Court of Appeal decision had concluded that disinherited beneficiaries would have to file a civil lawsuit, not a probate petition, to challenge the validity of trust documents.

Sacks added that probate judges are the best arbiters for torts over testamentary instruments, as they hear such challenges frequently. “The decision brings really needed clarity as to which court is supposed to handle these contests,” he said.

Read the full Daily Journal article here. (Subscription required)