Depending on who you believe, Walter Van Buskirk Jr. was either a devoted son whose care allowed his mom, Ellen Van Buskirk, to live in her Santa Monica home until illness sent her to a rehab facility—or a ne’er-do-well who locked her up without food, hoping to starve her to death to collect his inheritance.
His Svengali twin sisters, Susan and Patricia, either “kidnapped” their mother from that rehab against all medical advice in the middle of the night—or rescued her from evil Walter and ran off with her to their home in Idaho.
One thing everybody had in common in this West Coast Rashomon: Plenty of money to fight over, with at least 40 properties and numerous bank accounts.
So which lucky state would get to decide this “blazing family dispute,” as a court recently deemed it?
Ellen, a lifelong Californian, and her husband created a family trust in 2005, shortly before her husband Walter Sr. died. She was the trustee in 2016 when her daughters took her to Idaho. Ellen promptly disinherited her son Walter, and the trust began selling its California properties “at fire-sale prices” and buying up parts of Idaho. As Walter told the court, his sisters were “Rasputins who had taken [the trust] over and engaged in illegal follies.”
Walter filed a petition in California seeking a trust accounting and the appointment of a professional fiduciary as successor trustee. His sisters objected, claiming that the California court lacked personal jurisdiction over them and their mother. The Probate Court agreed and dismissed the petition. Walter appealed.
The Court of Appeal recently reversed that call and determined the case belonged in the Golden State after all. It applied a three-part test governing case-linked personal jurisdiction.
First, the court found Ellen and her daughters “purposefully availed” themselves of California’s forum benefits. For example, Ellen established the trust in California for California real estate, and she filed lawsuits in California.
Next, the court found that the sisters’ contacts with California courts are at the heart of Walter’s claims. The court noted his allegations that below-market sales of California real estate harmed him and the trust, that the sale of a Coachella date farm created a conflict of interest, and that his sisters were unfit to serve as trustees.
Finally, the judges determined California is a “fair play” jurisdiction for this family battle royale. The sisters will answer their brother’s trust claims here because they came to Santa Monica to extract Ellen from California. The court added that it’s not touching which sibling to believe with a 10-foot pole.
Avoid your own “blazing family dispute” by consulting an experienced estate lawyer to create an argument-proof estate plan. Buskirk v Buskirk, California, Second District, Div. Eight, B295648, (2020).
About the Author:
John O’Grady leads a full-service estate and trust law firm in San Francisco. His practice includes Estate Planning & Administration, Probate and Trust Litigation.