California Trust Litigation was likened by one wise Judge to a “four dimensional chess game.” Unlike most civil lawsuits, California Trust litigation can sometimes involve multiple petitions dealing with different issues, over a protracted period of time by multiple parties. This may be good; it may be bad, but it certainly is so. While the Code of Civil Procedure usually requires most civil lawsuits to dispose of all of the controversies between the parties in one lawsuit, this is manifestly not so for California probate and trust litigation. Trust litigation in California sometimes entails multiple petitions (essentially multiple lawsuits) over a protracted period of time, sometimes under different case numbers and with different judges. The result is that disputes can sometimes drag on for far longer than an ordinary civil lawsuit, at considerable cost to everyone involved. Sometimes, no doubt, this is necessary. But it does not always have to be that way.
Buffington Law Firm’s Southern California trust litigation attorneys believe that professional mediation is often the best means to resolve trust litigation and disputes. Rather than have one or the other parties continue to file petition after petition, skillful trust litigation counsel can often engineer a mediation and settlement that fully and finally disposes of the controversies and issues between the parties, actual and potential. This can allow the litigants, e.g. beneficiaries of a trust, to realize their inheritances and get on with their lives without being embroiled in court for many years. The objective of a mediation is to reach, and have the parties enter into, a comprehensive settlement agreement in which all of their disputes, actual and potential, are put to rest fully and finally. Usually such a settlement involves a mutual release of all claims, known and unknown. Most times this ends anyone’s ability to litigate over the trust and embroil the beneficiaries in yet another lawsuit.
The objective of fully and finally resolving trust disputes via mediation was greatly aided by a line of California trust litigation cases culminating in Breslin v. Breslin [(2021) 62 Cal. App. 5th 801] , a 2021 published case. Essentially, Breslin and its progeny holds that if a mediation takes place, and all of the interested parties are given notice of the mediation and the opportunity to participate in it, those who choose not to participate may be bound by any settlement that the mediating parties reach. Essentially, what this means is that if a mediation is scheduled, all of the interested parties are given notice of it and the opportunity to participate, if the mediation results in a settlement that affects the rights of non-participants (such as the trust being divided up a certain way, for example) the Probate Court may approve the settlement even if non-participants later oppose the petition for court approval of the settlement. The Court of Appeal in Breslin succinctly states that: “[t]he … [non-participating] … parties may not refuse to participate [in the mediation and settlement] and then complain that they received nothing.” [Breslin, supra, at 808]. This is obviously a potentially very harsh consequence to parties who decline to participate in a mediation of a trust dispute. It evidences a strong public policy to force the parties who are affected by a trust dispute to participate in mediation in order to resolve their differences. Breslin, supra, represents a significant expansion of the public policy favoring settlement.
This is a far reaching doctrine. It essentially allows parties to trust litigation to close the door to later trouble that other interested persons to a trust may bring at a later time. It may prevent someone who decides to sit out a mediation that affects his or her rights from making legal trouble at a later time. This is precisely what happened to the non-participating parties in Breslin. Thus, if a mediation settlement is skillfully done it is often possible for the mediation to craft a settlement that pretty much eliminates the potential for later litigation over the trust or its assets.
If you are involved in a California 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 completely protected by the attorney-client privilege.
Roger J. Buffington