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California Appeals Court Says Jilted Executor May Not Contest Will

A will or trust is not carved in stone-at least, not until you die. You may have cause to revise your estate plan on several occasions during your lifetime. In lieu of writing a new will, for instance, you might sign a codicil, a document amending only select parts of your will. The will and codicil must then be filed together with a California probate court.

Recently, a California Court of Appeals panel in Los Angeles upheld a probate judge’s dismissal of an effort to contest a codicil. The court said the persons filing the contest-the executors named in the original will and removed by the codicil-had no legal standing.

Rose v. Shaylin

Sonya Sobol died in 2012, leaving an estate worth approximately $22 million. Her estate plan included a trust, which became irrevocable upon her death, and largely excluded her family members as beneficiaries. Instead, the trust was to establish a foundation, named in honor of Sobol’s previously deceased son, to promote medical research and the construction of a hospital in Israel.

In conjunction with the trust, Sobol also signed what is known as a “pour-over will.” This is a last will and testament directing the executor to transfer any assets remaining in the estate to the trust. Sobol named the same persons as executors of the will and successor trustees of the trust.

Originally, Sobol named Jay Rose, an attorney, and Fred Maidenberg, her nephew, as executors and successor trustees. But in August 2012, about three months before her death, Sobol amended her trust to remove Rose and Maidenberg as successor trustees, naming three other persons in their place. Similarly, Sobol signed a codicil to her will replacing Rose and Maidenberg as executors. Sobol made no other change to her estate plan.

After Sobol’s death, the three co-executors filed a petition to probate the will. Rose and Maidenberg objected, arguing the codicil was obtained by “undue influence.” Rose asked the probate court to honor the original terms of the will and name him executor instead. The court declined.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal agreed with the probate court that Rose and Maidenberg lacked standing to even challenge the validity of the codicil. Only an “interested person” may contest a will or codicil. An interested person is someone who stands to benefit financially from the deceased’s estate, such as an heir or creditor. Rose and Maidenberg had no financial interest in Sobol’s estate whatsoever. They stood to inherit nothing from either the will or the trust. And they were not challenging the disposition of property under the will, only the appointment of executors. The appeals court said that was improper.

Understanding Trust Complexities

It is worth noting that one of the interested persons in Sobol’s estate is the Attorney General of California. This is because under state law, the Attorney General is responsible for protecting the interests of charitable trusts. That includes the trust Sobol created as part of her estate plan. This does not mean the Attorney General will interfere with the trust’s operations, only that his office must be notified of any legal proceedings related to the trust.

These are the sorts of issues that highlight the necessity of working with an experienced California estate planning attorney. Even if you don’t plan to establish a charity as part of your estate, you must still be apprised of all the legal ramifications of your decisions. Please contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego if you have any questions.

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