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Court Intervention to Supervise Administration of Trusts

by | Dec 1, 2022 | Firm News

As discussed in our Blog article last week, although California Living Trusts are intended to avoid Court involvement, once a trust petition activates such involvement, courts have broad equitable powers to issue orders to carry out the court’s supervision of the trust, once a trust petition activates this supervision.  This is the holding in the seminal case of Schartz v. Labow [(2008) 164 Cal. App. 4th 417, 427-428].  This case holds that once a Trust Petition brings a trust under the supervision of the Court, the Court has the power to hear motions aimed at affecting some action necessary or proper to dispose of the matters referenced in the Petition, including suspending the current trustee, appointing an interim trustee, ordering an accounting, and many other things.  Courts can, in fact, issue orders sua sponte (on the Court’s own initiative) to decide incidental issues necessary for the administration of the subject trust.  [See also Estate of Heggstad (1993) 16 Cal. App. 4th 943, 951 (probate court has the inherent power to decide all incidental issues necessary to carry out its express powers to supervise the administration of the trust)].  This doctrine is codified in California Probate Code Section 17206, which provides

The court in its discretion may make any orders and take any other action necessary or proper to dispose of the matters presented by the petition, including appointment of a temporary trustee to administer the trust in whole or in part.

[Cal. Probate Code Section 17206].

This concept is a vital one.  A petition in Probate Court can take a year or more to reach trial.  Often such delay is unacceptable.  The above authority, e.g. California Probate Code Section 17206, Schwartz v. Labow, supra, and other authority, give the court the power and authority to issue orders before the often-distant trial date via an ex parte or noticed motion, or less frequently, even on the Court’s own motion.  Courts are inherently reluctant to issue orders before trial, based upon the notion that the actual trial is the best way for the Court to hear all of the evidence upon which to base its decision.  However, in California trust litigation sometimes facts and circumstances will motivate a court to broadly intervene into the administration of a living trust and there is no doubt that the Probate Court has the authority to do so once a trust petition brings the subject trust within the Court’s jurisdiction.

Sometime in our opinion courts are excessively reluctant to issue interim orders under Probate Code Section 17206.  Even in some highly egregious cases, at times the Court will insist upon waiting until the actual trial to issue orders affecting the trust and its administration.  In one notable such case, the Court had refused for years (during the Covid pandemic, when court administration was significantly slowed down) to issue orders concerning the trust.  When the trial finally began, and the Court heard the evidence (the same evidence that had been repeatedly brought via motion earlier in the litigation) the Court ordered on its own motion all of the relief that had been asked for repeatedly earler — on the very first day of the trial!  Things are not always this way, but this anecdote provides insight into the difficulties that lawyers sometimes encounter when we seek to achieve Court intervention early in litigation, i.e. well before trial.

Not infrequently, even after trial the Court may retain jurisdiction and continue to hear motions and issue orders concerning the administration of the subject trust.  Buffington Law Firm’s trust litigation attorneys have handled many such cases.  If you are involved in a trust dispute, Buffington Law Firm invites you to contact us for a Free Legal Consultation.  All consultations are with an experienced trust litigation attorney and are protected by the attorney-client privilege.  Contact us today!

Roger J. Buffington