Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
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Gayle died in 2006. Attorney Johnston filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions on behalf of Gayle in 2016 and 2018 at the request of Gayle’s daughter, Elizabeth, the Administratrix of her mother’s probate estate. After the dismissal of the 2018 petition, Elizabeth, pro se, filed three Chapter 13 petitions on Gayle’s behalf. The Chapter 13 Trustee sought sanctions against Bagsby after she filed yet another Chapter 13 petition.The bankruptcy court ordered Johnston to show cause why he should not be subject to sanctions for filing the two Chapter 13 petitions on behalf of a deceased person. After a hearing, the bankruptcy court reopened the first two cases and issued sanctions sua sponte against Johnston and Bagsby. The bankruptcy court determined that Johnston failed to conduct any inquiries or legal research, there was no basis in existing law to support a reasonable possibility of success, and the cases were filed for the express purpose of delaying foreclosure actions. The bankruptcy court concluded Johnston violated Rule 9011 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel and the Sixth Circuit affirmed the sanctions order. Johnson had admitted to the factual findings. The bankruptcy court was not required to find that Johnson acted in bad faith, in a manner “akin to contempt of court,” or with a specific mens rea but only whether Johnston’s conduct was reasonable. View "Johnston v. Hildebrand" on Justia Law

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Lynne filed suit against her mother, individually and as trustee of a family trust, and her sisters (collectively Respondents), alleging that they forged trust instruments purporting to divide her parents’ estate upon the death of her father. The trial court entered judgment in favor of the Respondents after determining the trust instruments were not forgeries. On Respondents’ motion for attorneys’ fees, the trial court ordered Lynne to pay over $829,000, finding there was no merit to the position Lynne pursued at the trial, and that Lynne “acted without basis in filing any of her claims.” In addition, the court ordered Lynne to pay over $96,000 in costs.The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting Lynne’s arguments that the trial court’s jurisdiction was limited to the property of the trust estate, such that she could not be personally liable for any amount of attorneys’ fees over and above her interest in the trust and that because she had a reasonable and good faith belief in the merits of her claim, there was insufficient evidence to support the issuance of the fee award. View "Bruno v. Hopkins" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that the district court erred by disqualifying a district court judge because her impartiality could reasonably be questioned after she reviewed notes, produced in discovery, that the Supreme Court later determined to be privileged, holding that the district court erred by disqualifying Judge Sturman.Lawrence and Heidi Canarelli, along with attorney Edward Lubbers, served as former trustees of an irrevocable trust. Lubbers, who later became sole trustee, entered into a purchase agreement to sell the trust's ownership in the former trustees' business entities. Scott Canarelli petitioned to compel Lubbers to provide an accounting related to the purchase agreement. Lubbers died before Scott could depose Lubbers. Because the former trustees had disclosed documents containing Lubbers' notes, they attempted to claw back the documents. Judge Sturman allowed Scott to retain portions of the notes, but the Supreme Court held that the notes were privileged and undiscoverable. The former trustees moved to disqualify Judge Sturman as biased because she reviewed the privileged notes. The motion was denied. The Supreme Court granted writ relief, holding that the district court improperly disqualified Judge Sturman where the record did not show that Judge Sturman's review of the notes created bias or prejudice against the former trustees that would prevent fair judgment. View "Canarelli v. Eighth Judicial District Court" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff and her late husband, Grant Tinker, signed a premarital agreement (PMA) that in relevant part governed the ownership and testamentary disposition of their marital home. Respondents, Larry Ginsberg and his law firm, represented plaintiff in connection with the PMA and approved the PMA as to form on her behalf. Non-attorney Sidney Tessler, Tinker's longtime accountant and business manager, negotiated terms and approved the PMA as to form on Tinker's behalf. Plaintiff, the estate, and Tinker's children subsequently litigated plaintiff's and the children's claims, which were ultimately resolved in a global settlement.Plaintiff then filed suit against Ginsberg for legal malpractice in connection with the preparation and execution of the PMA, alleging that the PMA was unenforceable due to Ginsberg’s failure to ensure that Tinker signed a waiver of legal representation. The trial court granted Ginsberg's motion for summary judgment on the ground that Tinker ratified the PMA.The Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that there is a triable issue of material fact as to the threshold issue of whether Tinker satisfied the requirements of Family Code section 1615 when he executed the PMA. The court explained that, if the factfinder determines that Tinker did not comply with section 1615, and the PMA was therefore not enforceable, the question becomes whether Tinker's subsequent amendments to his estate plan could ratify the PMA and thereby rectify the statutory violation. The court concluded that the trial court erred by concluding that they could and did. The court held that a premarital agreement that is not enforceable under section 1615 is void, not voidable, and accordingly cannot be ratified. Because none of the other grounds asserted in the summary judgment motion support the trial court's ruling, the court reversed and remanded for further proceedings on plaintiff's malpractice claim. The court denied plaintiff's request for judicial notice as moot. View "Knapp v. Ginsberg" on Justia Law

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A.B., a 40-year-old male diagnosed to suffer from severe schizophrenia, has been subject to conservatorships on and off for 20 years. A.B. has no real property or significant assets; his only income is $973.40 in monthly social security benefits. The public guardian was most recently appointed as A.B.’s conservator in 2016 and reappointed annually until the dismissal of the conservatorship in 2019. In August 2017, the public guardian was awarded $1,025 and county counsel was awarded $365 in compensation for services rendered 2016-2017. In 2018, the court entered an order for compensation for the public guardian and county counsel in the same amounts covering 2017-2018. The public guardian sought compensation for services rendered 2018-2019, $1,569.79 for its services, and $365 for county counsel.The court found that the request for compensation was just, reasonable, and necessary to sustain the support and maintenance of the conservatee, and approved the petition, again ordering the public guardian to defer collection of payment if it determined that collection would impose a financial hardship on the conservatee. The court of appeal reversed. While the court had sufficient information before it to enable consideration of the factors enumerated in Probate Code section 2942(b), the court failed to do so and improperly delegated responsibility to the public guardian to defer collection. View "Conservatorship of A.B." on Justia Law

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Linda and her husband Milton set up an estate plan with the help of attorney Roth. Milton created a trust and designated himself as sole trustee. Upon his death, Linda and his accountant, Sanders, would become cotrustees. Milton’s assets included a $1.5 million Vanguard account. Milton later changed the Vanguard account and other accounts to transfer on death directly to Linda as the sole primary beneficiary. Milton died in 2016. Linda believed that Roth was still her attorney. Roth and Sanders convinced Linda to waive her rights as co-trustee and to disclaim her interest in the Vanguard account; they suggested that she had acquired these interests through wrongdoing. Roth then transferred the disclaimed Vanguard account directly to Milton’s son, David, instead of to the trust. David sued Linda and obtained an Indiana state court judgment that she exerted undue influence on Milton and that the trust was the proper owner of certain assets Milton had transferred to Linda.Linda sued in federal court, asserting fraud, conspiracy, and malpractice against Roth and Sanders, claiming the two “duped” her into disclaiming certain assets and that Roth committed malpractice by transferring the account to David rather than the trust. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit; issue preclusion based on the Indiana judgment foreclosed Linda’s claims because the Indiana jury’s finding of undue influence showed that Roth and Sanders’s advice to disclaim her illegally-obtained interests was neither negligent nor fraudulent. View "Bergal v. Roth" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's award of attorney fees to the Trust after the Trust successfully enforced the terms of a conservation easement. In this case, defendants owned land that is the subject of a conservation easement granted by previous owners in favor of the Trust and they intentionally violated the easement.The court rejected defendants' argument that, because the Trust's insurance policy covered its fees up to $500,000, the trial court was required to deduct that amount from the lodestar. Rather, the court concluded that the trial court was not required to reduce defendants' liability for attorney fees simply because the Trust had the foresight to purchase insurance. In any event, the court noted that the Trust will not receive a double recovery because, under the insurance policy, it must reimburse the insurer from any damage award. The court also rejected defendants' other challenges, concluding that the number of hours was not excessive; the lodestar was not disproportionate to the public benefit; and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by adding a fee enhancement. View "The Sonoma Land Trust v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine could be invoked by a trustee to prevent the disclosure to a beneficiary of communications between the trustee and counsel pertaining to attorney fees expended from a trust corpus. To reach that issue, the Court had to first address the question of whether the Superior Court erred in disclaiming jurisdiction on the basis that the trial court’s order rejecting the privilege claim was not a collateral order, and immediately reviewable as such. The Supreme Court held unanimously that the Superior Court had immediate appellate jurisdiction to review the privilege question on the merits, and therefore erred in concluding otherwise. As to the privilege issue itself, the Superior Court indicated that, notwithstanding its perceived lack of jurisdiction, there was no evidence by which to substantiate a claim of privilege on the merits, nor any argument presented to the trial court in support thereof. For those reasons, the court was left to conclude that the privilege was unavailable under the circumstances and that the communications at issue were subject to disclosure. The Supreme Court did not reach a consensus on whether the privilege may be invoked in the trust context. Because disclosure would nevertheless result from the competing positions set forth by a majority of Justices, the lower court’s alternative ruling was affirmed by operation of law. View "In Re: Estate of McAleer" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's grant of respondents' request for attorney fees under Probate Code section 2640.1, holding that attorney fees are not available where, as here, the matter is resolved without a conservator's appointment. In this case, respondents filed a conservatorship proceeding on their mother's behalf and the case settled before a conservator was appointed. Therefore, the trial court erred in granting respondents' request. View "Brokken v. Brokken" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, trustees and beneficiaries of a trust established in 1982 by their now deceased parents, filed suit against Alice, Shahen, and Arthur Minassian, asserting four causes of action arising out of alleged fraudulent transfers. The trial court sustained defendants' demurrers to two causes of action and plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the remaining causes of action.The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that plaintiffs pleaded facts sufficient to constitute a fraudulent transfer cause of action under Civil Code section 3439.04, subdivision (a)(1). In this case, plaintiffs alleged that Shahen made the subject transfers with an actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud any creditor of the debtor within the meaning of the Uniform Voidable Transactions Act, and alleged with particularity the existence of several badges of fraud. Furthermore, the litigation privilege does not bar plaintiffs' cause of action. In regard to plaintiffs' third cause of action against Arthur for aiding and abetting Shahen's fraudulent transfer, the court held that Arthur was not entitled to immunity for his involvement in the sham divorce and fraudulent scheme, and rejected Arthur's argument that he is protected by the litigation privilege; even if plaintiffs had alleged an attorney-client conspiracy, the allegations are sufficient to satisfy the exception to the pre-filing requirement under section 1714.10, subdivision (c); and the disclosed agent is inapplicable in this case. View "Aghaian v. Minassian" on Justia Law