Trust & Probate Litigation Attorney

Someone else claims to be the trustee, should I take her word for it?

Julie’s sister and only sibling, Nancy, recently passed away. Nancy didn’t have any children and she and her ex-husband divorced some time ago. Julie hasn’t had close contact with Nancy in a while, but they certainly weren’t estranged from each other. Nancy’s ex-husband’s sister (Nancy’s ex-sister-in-law) lives just a few cities away from where Nancy lived. Now the ex-sister-in-law claims to be the trustee of Nancy’s trust and that Nancy didn’t want Julie to have any part of the estate. Nancy left assets valued at approximately $5 million. Should Julie take her word for it?
With assets worth $5 million, it is certainly worth Julie’s time to know her rights.
Firstly, Julie should know that she is Nancy’s “heir at law”. An “heir at law” is a person who is entitled by statute to receive a portion of a decedent’s property if the decedent passed away without any valid will or trust. Since Nancy didn’t have any children and wasn’t married at the time of her death (and their parent’s had long since passed away), Julie stands next in line under the statutory presumption of intestate succession. (Cal. Prob. Code §§6400-6414).

Secondly, if Nancy truly did have a trust, and the ex-sister-in-law is now the trustee, she has important fiduciary duties. Whenever a revocable trust becomes irrevocable because of the death of a settlor of the trust, and whenever there is a change of trustee of an irrevocable trust, the trustee must serve a notification on each beneficiary of the irrevocable trust and on each heir of a deceased settlor. (Cal. Prob. Code §16061.7). This notification must be served within sixty (60) days and must contain certain statutorily prescribed information. (Cal. Prob. Code §16061.7). If the ex-sister-in-law is in fact the new trustee of Nancy’s trust, then she needs to serve this notice on Julie or risk being responsible to Julie for damages, attorney’s fees, and costs caused by failing to do so. (Cal. Prob. Code §16061.9). Julie does not have to take the ex-sister-in-law’s word for it.

Additionally, whenever a revocable trust becomes irrevocable because of the death of a settler of the trust, and whenever there is a change of trustee of an irrevocable trust, the trustee must provide a copy of the terms of the trust to each beneficiary of the trust and to each heir of a deceased settlor. (Cal. Prob. Code §16061.5). If the ex-sister-in-law refuses to provide a copy of the trust documents to Julie, then the ex-sister-in-law again risks being held liable to Julie. Again, Julie does not have to take the ex-sister-in-law’s word for it.

With $5 million worth of assets at stake, it would certainly be worth the comparatively small hassle to Julie to demand that the ex-sister-in-law comply with her duties as a trustee. If she refuses to comply, Julie can bring legal action against her to compel her to comply. In addition, Julie should be aware that the ex-sister-in-law’s refusal would be highly suspicious, in addition to her claim that Nancy wrote her only living relative (Julie) out of the trust. There is potential for serious financial damages in Julie’s favor if it turns out that the ex-sister-in-law was trying to take advantage of the situation.

David J. Hallstrom, Esq. and his trust and probate litigation team are here to help with any of your trust or probate concerns. We bring a broad base of experience and a global perspective to help you achieve effective, practical, and timely results.

Call David J. Hallstrom at (888) 308-1261 to schedule your consultation.

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