California Court Declines to Award Double Damages for Undue Influence Absent a Finding of Bad Faith

While some step-parents and step-children have a close bond, others have contentious relationships, and it is not uncommon for them to argue over property and assets. In some instances, their disputes continue after the death of the parties that tie them together. This was demonstrated in a recent case in which a step-daughter accused her step-mother of coercing her father into modifying a trust for her benefit. While the court ultimately found in favor of the step-daughter, it declined to award her the double damages she requested on the grounds that she failed to demonstrate bad faith. If another party unjustly violated your right to receive assets from an estate, it is in your best interest to speak to a California probate and trust lawyer to discuss what relief you may be awarded.

Facts of the Case

It is reported that, in 1986, the decedent established a revocable trust. He amended it numerous times after it was established. Specifically, it was modified on seven occasions. The decedent died in 2015, after which litigation surrounding the trust ensued. Specifically, the suit focused on amendments in 2008 and 2012. The decedent’s daughter from a prior marriage sued the decedent’s widow, asserting numerous causes of action. Over time, the claims were whittled down so that all that remained was a claim for an order compelling the return of certain property under Probate Code section 850 and a claim for double damages under Probate Code section 859.

Allegedly, the trial court found a presumption of undue influence with regard to the 2012 amendment. The widow did not rebut the presumption, and the court voided the 2012 amendment and ordered the widow to return the property she had obtained pursuant to the amendment. The daughter appealed, arguing in part that the court’s finding of undue influence required a finding that the wife committed financial abuse of an elder. The daughter further argued that this finding required an award of double damages under Probate Code section 859.

Damages Under Probate Code Section 859

The Court of Appeal declined to adopt the daughter’s reasoning and ruled that the trial court appropriately interpreted section 859. The court noted that section 859 provides for double damages in cases in which the court finds that a person, in bad faith, took the property by using undue influence or took property belonging to a trust or elder. Section 859 also provides for double damages in cases in which a party takes property through the commission of elder financial abuse, but that provision does not expressly require proof of bad faith.

While the Court noted the idiosyncrasy of the language differences between the provisions, it nonetheless found that bad faith must be established to recover double damages if the property is taken through undue influence, even if a party tries to couch the claims as elder abuse. The court explained that it did not believe the legislature’s intention in drafting section 859 was to provide double damages for undue influence without bad faith. As such, the Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment.

Meet with a Seasoned California Probate and Trust Attorney

The law provides remedies for people who have been unjustly denied of their right to receive property from an estate, and people who divert estate assets in bad faith may face significant penalties. If you have questions regarding your inheritance rights, you should meet with an attorney as soon as possible. The seasoned attorneys of the Bay Area Family Law Center are proficient at navigating complicated probate and trust disputes, and if you hire them, they will work tirelessly to help you seek a just outcome. You can contact Bay Area Family Law Center at 925-258-2020 or through the form online to set up a consultation.

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