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Trust and Estate Litigation: Property Disputes Attorneys in Orange County

Property disputes following a person’s death are regrettably common occurrences. Such disputes can arise due to various factors, including disagreements regarding the legitimacy of the deceased person’s trust or will, competing claims to the same property, or allegations of undue influence, fraud, or misappropriation.

When a dispute arises over the deceased person’s property, resorting to legal proceedings to resolve the matter may become necessary. This could entail contesting the validity of the trust or will, initiating a partition action to divide the property among multiple claimants, or pursuing a quiet title action to establish undisputed ownership rights.

To prevent property disputes upon one’s demise, the individual must have a clearly defined and legally sound trust and/or will that outlines how their assets should be distributed. Additionally, maintaining accurate records of one’s assets and effectively communicating one’s wishes to loved ones can help eliminate confusion or ambiguity about their intentions.

At OC Trial Group, our attorneys have extensive experience handling property disputes, ensuring favorable outcomes in such cases. If you require professional guidance or have any concerns, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at any time. Our team is prepared to offer personalized advice on how we can assist you.

In cases of fiduciary misconduct, OC Trial Group’s highly regarded litigation lawyers are available to provide assistance in rectifying any harm caused. Our team of experts can strategize to achieve litigation objectives by ensuring compliance, removing or replacing the fiduciary, or defending trustees against charges of breach, and recovering any resulting damages.

What is a Property Dispute?

A property dispute arises when there is a disagreement concerning the ownership or possession of assets. Such disputes can encompass various property types, extending beyond real estate to life insurance policies, bank accounts, or personal belongings such as artwork and vehicles.

It’s worth noting that if the property in question still belongs to the deceased person at their passing and the executor or trustee delays distributing it to beneficiaries, this may not be categorized as a property dispute but rather as a case of fiduciary misconduct. Similarly, contesting its legitimacy may become necessary in situations where doubts exist about the validity of the decedent’s will or trust.

Given the complexity of probate proceedings and the involvement of multiple parties, the likelihood of property disputes arising is understandably significant. At OC Trial Group, APC, our team of property dispute litigation attorneys stands ready to provide assistance, regardless of the nature of your property-related conflict.

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  • What Should I Expect at the Hearing and Disposition of an 850 Petition?

    When preparing for the hearing and disposition of an 850 Petition, the petitioner and/or respondent should consider the following:

    i. Continuance Requests: 

    The court is obligated to grant a request for a continuance from an “interested person” when it is necessary to allow time for preparing a response to the petition, conducting discovery, or for other preparation related to the hearing. However, it’s important to emphasize that the right to a continuance hinges on the promptness of the request following the service of the Section 850 petition. Courts are unlikely to delay the hearing if the requesting party delayed in bringing forth the supposed necessity for a continuance. In fact, many courts proactively set extended hearing dates when the petition is filed to minimize the need for potential continuances.

    ii. Prehearing “Surrender Orders:

    In certain cases where it appears that an adverse claimant in possession of the disputed property may attempt to transfer or convey it before the matter is adjudicated, the probate court has the authority to issue a pendente lite order. This order requires the release of the property to the opposing party before a full hearing on the petition takes place. The authority for this action is implicit in Probate Code Section 800, which explicitly grants probate courts the same power and authority as civil courts in general, including the power to grant any injunctive relief.

    iii. No Right to Jury Trial:

    It’s important to note that Section 850 proceedings are not subject to a jury trial. However, in independent civil actions where parties claim an interest in or the right to possession of real or personal property of the estate, the right to a jury trial is determined according to the provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure, not the Probate Code.

    iv. Summary Determination Alternatives:

    Instead of engaging in a full-blown court trial, which can be costly and time-consuming, the Code offers two expedited “summary determination” alternatives that can be considered in place of traditional litigation. If both parties agree, they can opt for summary determination by a designated temporary judge or choose to have the matter resolved through binding arbitration. These alternatives provide more efficient ways to resolve disputes and are encouraged as a cost-effective initial approach.

  • Should You File and Record a Lis Pendens with an 850 Petition?

    In cases involving real property, it’s important to note that either party has the option to file a notice of the pendency of the proceeding, also known as a “lis pendens.” These procedures are the same as those governing lis pendens in civil actions in general.

    While filing and recording a lis pendens is not mandatory, it is generally advisable to do so. This is because, once the notice is properly recorded in the county where the subject real property is located, it serves as constructive notice to the public regarding the pending proceeding. In essence, it alerts “the world” to the ongoing legal action, effectively preventing subsequent claims by bona fide purchasers.

  • How Do I Comply with Notice Requirements Under Probate Code Section 850?

    In Section 850 proceedings, notice of the hearing on the petition must be provided to specific parties in the following manner:

    i. Minimum 30 Days’ Notice by CCP § 413.10 et seq. Service:

    At least 30 days before the hearing, the petitioner is required to serve notice and a copy of the petition according to the procedures outlined for the service of a civil summons under CCP § 413.10 et seq. This service must extend to the personal representative and anyone asserting an interest in or claiming title to or possession of the property, except for those who are also petitioners themselves.

    ii. Notice under Probate Code Section 1220:

    In addition to those individuals who must be served under Section 851(a) (as described above), a minimum 15 days’ notice of the hearing along with a copy of the petition must be provided in accordance with Probate Code Section 1220. This notice should be delivered personally, electronically, or by mail as specified in Probate Code Section 1215 to the persons listed in Probate Code Section 1220 and to each “known” heir and devisee whose interests in the estate would be impacted.

    iii. No Shortening of Notice:

    Unlike most probate matters where the court has the authority to shorten the minimum notice period with a showing of “good cause,” Section 850 proceedings are an exception. The court is explicitly prohibited from shortening the time for giving notice of the hearing under Section 851.

    iv. Content Requirements:

    The notice must contain the following essential elements:

    a) A description of the property in question, providing sufficient details to notify any party with an interest in the property. For real property, the notice must include the street address, or if unavailable, a description of the property’s location and assessor’s parcel number.

    b) A description of the relief being sought under Probate Code Section 859, adequately informing the party against whom relief is requested.

    c) A statement advising any person interested in the property that they have the option to file a response to the petition.

    v. Proof of Notice Given:

    As with all probate petitions that require a noticed hearing, proof of proper service and the required mailed notice in accordance with Section 851 must be provided to the court’s satisfaction before or during the hearing.

    It’s essential to ensure compliance with these notice requirements as they play a critical role in the Section 850 proceedings. However, keep in mind that California Superior Court’s local rules may impose additional content requirements.

  • How Do I Commence a Proceeding Under Probate Code Section 850?

    To initiate a Section 850 action in probate proceedings, a verified petition must be filed with the court where the probate is being administered, as per Probate Code Section 850(a)(2) and (b). This petition must provide a clear presentation of the facts supporting the claim. The filing of the petition can be done by the personal representative or any “interested person,” which includes heirs, beneficiaries, or creditors. If the personal representative fails to file the action, another interested party can take the initiative. There is no statutory time limit for filing the petition, and it can be initiated until the final distribution and closure of the estate. Notably, the court retains authority to consider a Section 850(a)(2) petition even after the subject property has been sold to a bona fide purchaser, in which case the petition may relate to the sale proceeds held by the estate.

    The statute of limitations that applies to the underlying claim in the Section 850 petition corresponds to the limitations period that would be applicable in a standard civil suit. However, it’s uncertain whether this period is further constrained by the provisions of CCP Sections 366.2 or 366.3, which prescribe one-year limitations periods triggered by the decedent’s death. The outcome may depend on the nature of the claim underlying the Section 850 action.

    While the statutory framework does not mandate a specific form or content for the petition, California Superior Courts have local court rules impose particular requirements that should be followed to avoid dismissal or a request for amendment. At the very least, the petition should provide sufficient details to enable the court to establish jurisdiction over the dispute and to reveal the basis for the petitioner’s superior claim to title or possession.

    In a Section 850 proceeding, double damages equivalent to twice the value of the property recovered for the estate may be awarded, along with reasonable attorney fees and costs, if the defendant is found to have acted in bad faith by wrongfully taking, concealing, or disposing of the property. This applies not only to bad faith actions but also to cases involving undue influence in bad faith or elder or dependent adult financial abuse.

  • What Are the Limitations on Trust and Estate Property Disputes Under Probate Code Section 850?

    In probate proceedings, it’s crucial to establish that the decedent had a valid claim to the property in question at the time of their passing, as Section 850 jurisdiction is only applicable in such cases. If the claim was still in an incomplete or “inchoate” state when the decedent passed away, it may not be sufficient to entitle the estate to initiate legal action. For instance, in the case of an attorney’s contingency fee contract with a company, if the contract’s claim for fees depended on an event occurring after the attorney’s death, it could not be litigated in a Section 850 proceeding.

    In third-party actions, unrecorded security interests typically do not provide a basis for a Section 850 petition, as the courts have consistently limited standing to third-party claimants seeking declarations of title, ownership, or possession. For instance, the beneficiary of a trust deed securing a promissory note may not bring a Section 850 action against the estate, as their interest is often too remote to claim the property itself. However, a third-party judgment creditor claiming under a judgment lien may utilize a Section 850 proceeding to address whether the subject property is properly part of the probate estate, particularly if the property was owned as a joint tenant, which would exclude it from the estate.

    It’s important to note that the scope of standing in Section 850 proceedings may have evolved over time, with certain earlier cases having less persuasive effect in determining current standing parameters. Today, a creditor of the estate is often presumed to qualify for initiating a Section 850 proceeding. Additionally, the probate court’s general jurisdiction, as established by Probate Code Section 800, has expanded, rendering some prior law no longer applicable.

  • Who Can File a Trust and Estate Property Dispute Claim Under Probate Code Section 850?
    The personal representative, successor trustee, a third party claimant, or any other “interested person” may seek adjudication of the adjudication of the adverse claims relating to trust and estate property in the probate court, requesting a court order directing conveyance or transfer of title or possession of said trust and estate property. In sum, a petition under Probate Code Section 850 may even be brought by or against strangers to the trust or estate, or parties who are in “privity” with the trust or estate.
  • What Circumstances Support an Action Being Filed Under Probate Code Section 850?
    In probate litigation, the Probate Code Section 850 et seq. governs actions related to adverse property claims. These proceedings can be initiated in a decedent’s estate administration under the following circumstances: (1) when estate property is claimed to belong to another, and (2) when property held by another is claimed to belong to the decedent. These specific situations are outlined in Probate Code Section 850(a)(2)(C) and 850(a)(2)(D). For further details on Probate Code Section 850 proceedings involving the enforcement of decedent’s property transfer contracts, please refer to the relevant section.
  • Do You File Pleadings in Civil Court or Probate Court for Trust and Estate Property Disputes?

    In the past, superior courts presiding over probate matters did not have the authority to adjudicate disputes related to property titles. Their jurisdiction was limited to assets that unequivocally belonged to the deceased individual or their estate. Importantly, third-party claimants were not allowed to be involved in these proceedings, as they did not have a direct legal connection (“privity”) with the estate.

    Over time, exceptions emerged to allow individuals who could demonstrate a legal connection (“privity”) with the estate, such as heirs, beneficiaries, or appointed representatives acting on behalf of the estate, to address their property title disputes within probate proceedings.

    Recognizing the efficiency of resolving entire disputes within a single legal process, the Legislature expanded these exceptions, effectively eliminating the historical limitations. Now, all title disputes and adverse claims, including those involving parties unrelated to the estate, can be addressed within the probate proceeding as per Probate Code Section 850(a)(2). Indeed, a petition under Probate Code Section 850 is so versatile that many other claims relating to property can also be brought within probate proceedings.

    Notwithstanding, property disputes relating to trust and estate property still can be filed in civil court, but there are many benefits to filing the same disputes in probate court. Filing a property dispute in probate court can be beneficial due to its specialization in estate and trust matters, streamlined procedures, and expertise in fiduciary duties. Probate courts have jurisdiction over property disputes related to estates and can ensure a more efficient and knowledgeable resolution. This specialized approach can be advantageous for cases where the primary concern is estate-related property issues and the protection of heirs and beneficiaries.

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