Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Notice is Notice, or, When Probate Attorneys Attack

Sometimes, in a the middle of an otherwise mundane appellate court opinion, you get a snippet if the flavor of the underlying litigation. In Estate of Kelly, there was just such a whif.

The rule of law should keep most probate attorneys on their toes. Stanley Kelly died leaving an estate of over $1 million. His father, E. George Kelly, petitioned the court for letters of administration (which is what you do so you can probate the estate). George also notified Human Rights Campaign, Inc. (HRC) that it was the beneficiary of several of Sanley's bank accounts. George filed a petition stating that Stanley died without a will or trust (i.e., he died intestate), and asking the court to approve distributing Stanley's estate to himself as the sole heir. HRC responded with a petition to probate a handwritten (or "holographic") will by Stanely leaving his entire estate to them. George claimed that the time period for HRC to admit the holographic will had expired, and so they could not receive Stanley's estate under the will. The court held that the clock never started ticking on the time period for admitting the holographic will because George never gave HRC notice of the petition for letters of administration. George argued that he did six different things that communicated to HRC that he was probating Stanley's estate, all of which effectively notified HRC that he was the administrator. The court was having none of it, and held that Notice means Notice. The only thing that starts the clock ticking for someone to admit a will to probate is Notice using the proper Judicial Council form. Sorry, George, but HRC gets to admit to probate Stanley's holographic will giving his $1 million estate to them.

Now for the interesting part. The factual statement in the opinion contained this passage: "The bigger picture was that the Administrator and his counsel had superfiduciary duties 'not to mislead the court, and they have duties to make sure that the estate is probated and tha tit follows the wishes and intent of the decedent.' The court rejected the argument that counsel for the administrator was placed in an adversarial position; his duty was to probate the estate, not to obtain a distribution for [George] Kelly." In other words, counsel, remember who your client is! The attorney George hired represented the Estate of Stanley Kelly, not George as sole heir. Somehwere along the way, this attorney lost sight of this, and fought for George over the estate. I can't help but think that court was, in part, bringing counsel back in line by using the "strict construction" of the notice requirements of Probate Code section 8226.

Although I love the phrase "superfiduciary duties," I must admit I fear that it is going to start showing up fairly regularly in pleadings.


Shelly Smith said...

Well said..!!
Shelly Smith..

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