It takes a particular type of family dysfunction for brothers and sisters to take their fight to courtroom after courtroom after courtroom for 12 years. Meet the Donkin clan.
Back before everybody squared off before their first judge, parents Rodney and Mary Donkin established what seemed to be a solid estate plan. It provided, among other things, that after both of them died, the assets would be shared equally by daughters Annemarie and Lisa, son Rodney Jr., and his wife, Vicki.
Rodney died in 2002. Shortly before Mary died in 2005, she named Rodney Jr. and Vicki as primary trustees and attempted to amend that trust to give them “sole discretion” to manage the trust rather than distribute the assets. That led to the first Donkin court hearing in 2009, a squabble that continued until 2013 when the California Supreme Court held that Mary lacked the authority to amend her deceased husband’s trust—giving Annemarie and Lisa the win.
Undeterred, Rodney and Vicki returned to court a year later, making the same arguments—and this time, they represented themselves as the trustees. Annemarie and Lisa launched a counterpunch with an extra zinger: They requested an order telling the world that the losers had dabbled in the unauthorized practice of law.
The court, playing the part of the only adult in the room, declined.
It dismissed Annemarie and Lisa’s childish request because a trustee may seek the court’s assistance without counsel, such as Rodney and Vicki did, to determine the express intent of the trustor. “Under these circumstances, the trustee is adverse to the beneficiaries and thus is not representing the beneficiaries interests.” And is not practicing law without a license by appearing without counsel.
Finally, the court, tired of overseeing the Donkin rivalry for a dozen years, scolded Rodney and Vicki for having “…wasted the court’s and (Annemarie and Lisa’s) time trying to relitigate issues already decided by the California Supreme Court in this case.”
Are you worried that your little darlings, or even semi-loved ones, might someday bicker over your estate? Contact a reputable estate attorney for advice on how to avoid a battle royale and get your undisputed last wishes on paper. Donkin v. Donkin, 47 Cal.App.5th 469 (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.