Trust & Estate Litigation
The law is a reflection of the times in which we live. This is particularly true with litigation relating to trusts and estates.
In the United States and elsewhere, the 1970s were a time of dramatic cultural change. It was then that the divorce rate began to increase steadily, ushering in changes in family structures and financial consequences with which we’re often now dealing in the courtroom.
According to Ellen McKissock, the head of Hopkins & Carley’s Trust & Estate Litigation practice, “Many of the marriages, re-marriages, domestic partnerships and blended families of the past 20 or 30 years have put stresses on estates.”
“These are naturally very trying circumstances for most people. But when combined with the high net worth created, for example, by California’s now graying dot-com pioneers, it’s a game changer. There’s now an unprecedented demand for trust and estate lawyers whose skill set extends beyond understanding testamentary instruments, but also are comfortable and knowledgeable in litigation. Likewise, the typical civil litigator does not understand the special rules and nuances of the probate arena. Hopkins & Carley is one of the few firms that has specialists combining these two skill sets.”
We represent a wide variety of clients, including private and institutional fiduciaries, individual beneficiaries, charitable organizations and others. Our clients bring us a wide range of issues, ranging from trust and will contests, construction and reformation actions, financial elder abuse matters, trustee disputes, conservatorships, tax matters, real estate issues and more. In short, we handle all aspects of trust and estate litigation, from litigation prevention through trial and appeal.
Whether in private mediation or arbitration, or in court, our services cover a wide range of circumstances in which skilled and aggressive advocacy is needed, including:
- Pre-litigation fact review, including accountings, advice, and strategic plan design
- Pleadings preparation
- Pretrial document discovery and depositions
- Ongoing strategic and tactical planning
- Mediation and other alternative dispute resolution methods
- Motion preparation and argument
- Trial or hearing
- Post-mortem planning and trust reformation
- Trust and estate accounting disputes
- Construction of instruments
- Determination of heirship
- Discovery of estate assets
- Traditional contests based on lack of capacity or undue influence
- Removal of fiduciaries
- Property rights disputes
- Valuation disputes
- Tax disputes
- Elder abuse
- Litigation prevention services
A Reputation as Leaders
Just about any lawyer can look up what California courts have said about trusts, estates and probate issues. Our lawyers, however, regularly practice before the probate courts and our knowledge of the law, as well as the probate judges and examiners, provides us with greater perspective in strategizing in a particular matter. As Ellen McKissock puts it, “We have been lead counsel in several large, difficult, high-profile cases, including key appellate cases. We have helped shape the law.”
As a result, Hopkins & Carley has earned a reputation as one of the leading trust and estate litigation law firms in Northern California. Our team of senior attorneys, associates and dedicated paralegals is sought by leading individuals, families, closely-held businesses, mid-market companies, individual and corporate fiduciaries, charitable organizations, and educational institutions for efficient, cost-effective and client-comes-first advocacy.
The members of our group are seasoned courtroom lawyers, with a combined total of more than 60 years of litigation experience. Whenever an adversary threatens our client with a lawsuit, we work first to try to resolve the matter cost-effectively out of court. However, we never negotiate from a position of weakness. Our litigators are experienced, capable, and always ready to head to court if that is what the client ultimately desires. However, every step of the way we evaluate and discuss with the client what is the most cost-effective way to achieve their goal.
Hopkins & Carley’s Trust & Estate Litigation clients also benefit from the group’s ability to draw on the depth and expertise of our firm’s Family Wealth & Tax Planning, Real Estate, and Corporate, Tax & Business Transaction departments. This support enables our litigators to address related issues that help us reach favorable settlements.
We are known for our ability to navigate disputes in creative, tax-efficient ways that minimize family strife, expense, and publicity. This helps us bring about the best negotiated resolution.Client Successes
- Our client was a victim of financial elder abuse when her life insurance agent and trustee of her welfare benefit plan admittedly stole $1.5 million from her life insurance policy. After obtaining a confessed judgment against the agent/trustee, we sued the life insurance company for its own negligence in allowing the client’s agent/trustee to commit fraud. The insurance company sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that Probate Code section 18100 protects third parties in transactions where the third party acts in good faith and without knowledge that the trustee is exceeding his powers. However, given the number of times the agent/trustee had been accused of fraud in other litigation, the Northern District of California disagreed and permitted the claims to survive against the insurance company. This victory will allow our client to recover her losses, including punitive damages and attorneys’ fees under financial elder abuse laws from the insurance company directly.
- During the third week of a jury trial, we obtained a judgment of nonsuit in favor of our client. Hopkins & Carley’s client, the trustee of a family trust and oldest child, was accused of engaging in financial elder abuse by borrowing money from her mother and the trust. The opposing side, the trustee’s younger siblings, claimed damages in excess of $30 million. After the Court found that all of the borrowed funds had been repaid with interest, the Court granted a motion for judgment of nonsuit. Hopkins & Carley’s client was completely vindicated.
- Following a two-week trial to the Court, Hopkins & Carley obtained a judgment cancelling a 98-year lease on behalf of its clients, certain family members, against their oldest sibling, who procured the lease in 1963 through fraud and undue influence. The lease pertained to 20 acres in the Blossom Hill area of San Jose on which a mobile home park sits, generating millions of net income per year. Steve successfully argued, among other things, that the statute of limitations had been tolled as a result of the fraud and undue influence.
- Following a multiple-day trial to the Court, Hopkins & Carley obtained judgment in favor of its client in a case involving a dispute over who was the intended beneficiary of an ambiguous residuary clause in a Trust. The Court awarded the entire trust residue, valued in excess of $5 million, to Hopkins & Carley’s client.
- Challenging a marriage after death is nearly impossible. That, however, is exactly what we did, and we won. The case involved a 52-year-old estate-planning Professionals who married her 82-year-old client—who was lonely and dying of cancer—after preparing his estate plan and learning he was worth $2 million and that his only family lived in Norway. The man died before his family was able to have the marriage annulled, and the Professionals, claiming to be his wife (even though she never lived with him), said she was entitled to half of his estate and sued to claim it. We successfully had the marriage found void on summary judgment. The Professionals appealed. We won on appeal. The marriage was held void.
- Our client was an elderly father, suffering from dementia, who was serving as trustee of his trust. His son, who had an aversion to working, had moved in with his father and was having him write him checks. We petitioned the court to remove the father as trustee and replace him with someone who would properly administer the trust in the interests of the father.
- The trustee of a trust was in breach of his fiduciary duty by engaging in self-dealing. He had refinanced the family home, taking the equity for himself and spending money in the trust bank accounts. We successfully removed the trustee and installed our client as trustee.