Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Probate Appeals

Rare Reversal of Probate Judgment for Lack of Substantial Evidence

A "substantial evidence" appeal is among the toughest to reverse. That is when the challenge to the judgment is based on one of the trial court's factual findings. An appellate court will almost never disturb a trial court's finding on a factual question. To get a reversal, you have to show there is literally no evidence, or the functional equivalent.

But the appellant managed it in Mulberg v. Amster (D1 Jul. 14, 2021) no. A158954 (nonpub. opn.).

The attorney-appellant, serving as trustee, took money from the estate to pay fees owed individually by his beneficiary client. When the court (correctly) surcharged him for that, the appellant went back to his client demanding she pay up. She refused, so the appellant sued. But the court denied his fees, reasoning his prior invoices showed the fees had been paid in full.

Reversing, the Court of Appeal reasoned the fee obligation was obviously unpaid. The invoices showing payment barely merited a "come on, man."

The upshot: If you can frame your appeal of factual findings as arising from undisputed facts, this may improve your chances of success. (Of course, if there are disputed facts that support the judgment, you still must deal with those.)

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Court Imposes $32,000 in Sanctions For Frivolous Appeal in Acrimonious Probate Dispute

The Court of Appeal awarded over $25,000 in appellate attorney fees as sanctions against the unsuccessful appellants in Trumble v. Kerns (D4d1 Jun. 28, 2021) no. D076490 (nonpub. opn.), and an additional $8,500 in court costs as further sanctions.

The appellants are sisters, and one side of a "dysfunctional family" engaged in a ten-year dispute over their mother's estate. (Anyone bothering to put their assets in a trust ought to give a thought to appointing an independent fiduciary as successor trustee. Otherwise, the trust might as well name the attorneys as beneficiaries.)

The Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded the appellants had forfeited all their arguments by failing to raise them in the trial court and by failing to include a proper statement of facts, supported by record citations, in their appellate brief. What sealed the deal for sanctions: in their opposition to the motion for sanctions, the appellants made their own (untimely) request for $4 million sanctions (based on a precluded issue). That did not sit well with the court.

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Is This Probate Order Appealable? Yes, But "It's Messy,"​ Says Appellate Court

When you are trying to determine if an order is appealable, that question is normally pretty cut-and-dried. But not in the probate case of Manvelian v. Manvel (D2d7 Jun. 22, 2021) no. B297334 (nonpub. opn.). The Second District Court of Appeal spent several paragraphs, evaluated the factual record, and threaded its analytical needle through multiple cases, including 100-year-old Supreme Court precedent, to determine that, though it is a "close call," the order denying a motion to vacate an order confirming a settlement was appealable.

You can usually tell whether the order is appealable just by the title or nature of the order. It should not require researching 100 years of precedent to find out if an order is appealable. But that is what it took here.

The Upshot: If you plan to challenge an order or judgment in a motion to vacate in probate court, try to raise issues and evidence that were not available at the time the underlying order or judgment was issued. That will help ensure an order denying your motion is independently appealable.

But if you do not need to raise new issues or evidence, make sure to timely appeal the underlying order or judgment. (In fact, you might timely appeal it regardless. You should consult an appellate attorney in this situation.)

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