Probate litigation can be the result of a will or trust contest or a petition for removal of a trustee. But in some cases, there is simply a dispute about legal ownership of personal property. Estate planning involves more than your money and your house. It also includes valuable personal property such as vehicles. There may be certain family heirlooms or antiques that should not be overlooked. If a certain piece of property is meant to be a gift during your lifetime, you need to make that clear. Otherwise, probate litigation may be required to determine who is entitled to that property after your death.
Who legally owns this classic car?
In an interesting case involving a classic automobile, probate litigation was necessary to determine legal ownership after the death of one family member and the claims of ownership of another. A man became a nursing home resident in 2009 and asked his nephew to take care of his classic vehicle while he was in the nursing home. He apparently did not intend to relinquish ownership of the car because he understood that Medicaid would allow him to own a vehicle while maintaining his eligibility for benefits. When the nephew passed away, he attempted unsuccessfully to regain possession of the vehicle from the nephew’s estate. The question that was raised was whether the classic car was a gift to the nephew.
Facts used to determine ownership
The evidence brought out during probate litigation established that the uncle asked his nephew to store the car at the nephew’s home while he was in the nursing home resident. The nephew agreed and arranged for the transportation of the vehicle, which was not operable at the time. Over the next few years, the nephew performed repairs and maintenance on the vehicle. Ultimately, the nephew got the insured and then registered the vehicle in his name in 2013.
Following a hearing, the court held that the transfer of the car to the nephew was actually a gift from his uncle. The court determined that the three elements required to establish a gift had been met. There was evidence of donative intent, the vehicle was delivered to the nephew, and the uncle ultimately relinquished ownership and dominion of the car. The uncle was unsuccessful in overturning the decision on appeal.
Can a probate litigation case be appealed?
In California, as in other states, parties to a civil lawsuit who are not successful have the option of appealing the decision. Decisions that are appealed will be reviewed by the appropriate California appellate court. The same is true for litigants in a probate matter who are unsuccessful. In civil appellate court, only certain individuals have “standing” to bring the appeal. That typically means the parties who were involved in the original civil litigation. Probate litigation could be the result of a will or trust contest or a petition for removal of a trustee. However, in probate cases, heirs or beneficiaries who did not participate in the probate matter at the trial level still have standing to appeal.
Exceptions to the general rule on appeals
Probate matters allow for an exception where non-parties to the prior court proceedings can still have standing to bring an appeal. This is a very important exception because non-party heirs and beneficiaries will not be bound by an adverse ruling when they had no opportunity to be a party to the original action.
Planning Ahead to Avoid Probate Litigation
As a general rule, most people want to avoid the potential for probate litigation if at all possible. When a family member or beneficiary disagrees with how estate property is being distributed, the likely result is probate litigation. That means someone who has an interest in the estate brings their disagreement to the court to resolve. However, if you take certain steps now you may be able to avoid many of the common disputes through proper estate planning. If you find yourself in the middle of a will contest and need legal assistance, one of our Los Angeles probate litigation attorneys can help.
Join us for a free seminar today! If you have questions regarding estate planning, trust contests, or any other trust administration issues, please contact the Schomer Law Group either online or by calling us in Los Angeles at (310) 337-7696, and in Orange County at (562) 346-3209.
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