Back in the 1980s, Joan Lee Maynord and her husband Bob set up a family trust for their six children. After Bob’s death in 1993, sole trustee Joan oversaw it for two decades, with all of their children designated as beneficiaries and daughter Joan Mauri Barefoot in line to serve as successor trustee someday.
Then something changed: In a series of amendments by her mother over the three years before her death in 2016, Joan Mauri was not only removed as successor trustee but disinherited altogether. Her sister Shana Wren was given a large share of the trust and picked as the new successor to the throne.
Joan Mauri filed suit against Shana and another sister, Jana Susan Jennings, alleging that the disinheriting trust amendments were invalid because their mother was incompetent at the time and that the changes were the product of the sisters’ undue influence—and fraud. Shana and Jana argued that their sister no longer had standing to bring the case as she was no longer a trustee or a beneficiary. The trial and appeals courts agreed that, under the technicalities of California law, a disinherited person could not contest a trust amendment.
The California Supreme Court said no. It reversed and allowed Joan Mauri Barefoot’s case to proceed “to ensure that the settlor’s intent is honored.” Was she disinherited as a result of illegal shenanigans of her sisters that subverted the mother’s intent? Or did their mom legitimately change her mind? Let the probate court decide, the high court said, declaring that probate judges have broad jurisdiction to hear “all controversies which might arise between the trustees and those claiming to be beneficiaries under the trust.”
If you’re a trustee who has become involved in a family feud, contact an estate attorney before your settlor’s intent gets lost. Barefoot v. Jennings, Cal 5th, (S251574) (January 23, 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.