IN THE COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA THIRD APPELLATE DISTRICT (Placer)
March 18, 2011
ESTATE OF SALLY C. PATTERSON, DECEASED. JEAN KANEKO, PETITIONER AND RESPONDENT,
NANCY P. LAMB ET AL., OBJECTORS AND APPELLANTS.
(Super. Ct. No. SPR4836)
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hull, J.
Estate of Patterson
NOT TO BE PUBLISHED
California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.
This is a dispute between claimants of the estate of decedent Sally C. Patterson (Decedent). On one side are Decedent's siblings, objectors Nancy P. Lamb and Neal Patterson (Objectors), who claim the estate by right of intestate succession. On the other side is petitioner Jean Kaneko (Petitioner), who claims pursuant to a will executed by decedent in 1994.
Following a bench trial, the probate court concluded Objectors failed to disprove the validity of the 1994 will and entered an order admitting the will to probate. Objectors appeal. We conclude the evidence supports the findings of the probate court and affirm the order.
Facts and Proceedings
Decedent and James Kaneko (James) lived as husband and wife in a home in Damascus, Virginia, from the 1960s until James's death in 1999. They were never married. Sometime during this period, James inherited from his parents a residence in Lincoln, California.
James had a brother named Samuel Kaneko (Samuel). At all relevant times, Samuel was married to Petitioner.
In January 1994, James and Decedent executed mirror wills and trusts. The wills provided that, upon death, the assets of the testator would pour over into the trust. The trust in turn provided that, upon death, the trust assets would be distributed to the survivor. It further provided that, if there is no survivor, the trust assets shall be distributed to Samuel.
James died in 1999 and, pursuant to his 1994 will and trust, his estate was distributed to Decedent.
In September 1999, Decedent filed a lawsuit against Samuel and Petitioner alleging they fraudulently induced James to transfer ownership to them of an investment account valued at approximately $474,000. On November 29, 2000, the parties to this lawsuit entered into a settlement agreement whereby Samuel and Petitioner agreed to pay Decedent $270,000 and released Decedent from any and all claims.
Decedent lived in the Lincoln residence until her death on August 7, 2007.
On August 13, 2007, Nancy Lamb filed a petition for letters of administration, claiming Decedent died intestate and seeking appointment as administrator of the estate. Notice of the petition was served on Samuel. On September 24, the probate court appointed Lamb administrator of the estate.
Samuel died on April 8, 2008. At the time of his death, Samuel's will provided that all his assets poured over into the Samuel T. and Jean K. Kaneko Trust, of which Petitioner is the trustee and sole beneficiary.
On June 5, 2008, Lamb filed a first and final report of administrator and petition for payment of expenses and final distribution. In the report, Lamb declared that the original of Decedent's 1994 will had not been found and, therefore, must be presumed to have been destroyed by Decedent with intent to revoke.
On July 16, 2008, at the hearing on Lamb's petition for final distribution, Petitioner appeared and presented the original of Decedent's 1994 will, which she claimed to have received only a few days earlier. The court took the matter under submission.
On July 23, the court issued an order on submitted matter, denying Lamb's petition for final distribution. The court further directed Lamb to file an amended petition to administer the estate with will annexed.
On August 20, Petitioner filed an amended petition to probate will and for letters of administration with will annexed. Objectors filed objections, arguing, among other things, that Petitioner's petition was untimely, she has no standing to pursue the matter, and the earlier settlement agreement in the lawsuit between Decedent and Petitioner barred Petitioner from asserting a claim on the estate.
On November 10, 2008, the probate court issued an order on Petitioner's petition to probate the will. First, the court concluded Petitioner has standing as both an interested party and as a person having a claim against the estate. The court further concluded the petition was timely, because Petitioner only recently learned of the existence of the original will.
The court set a trial date on the validity of the will. At trial, the parties stipulated that Petitioner had met her burden of proving the will had been properly executed by Decedent and witnessed, thereby creating a presumption of its validity. The trial then proceeded on the issue of Decedent's testamentary intent at the time the will was executed and thereafter.
On November 10, 2009, the court issued a tentative decision, finding Objectors failed to prove Decedent did not have the requisite testamentary intent at the time she executed the will, Objectors failed to prove Decedent revoked the will thereafter, and the earlier settlement agreement is not a bar to Petitioner's petition. On December 3, the court issued a statement of decision affirming its tentative decision and admitting the will to probate.
Objectors appeal the order overruling their objections to Petitioner's petition, the tentative ruling, and the statement of decision.
Probate Code section 8226 requires a proponent of a will who receives notice of a petition for probate or for letters of administration to petition for probate of the will within the later of: "(1) One hundred twenty days after issuance of the order admitting the first will to probate or determining the decedent to be intestate. [¶] 2. Sixty days after the proponent of the will first obtains knowledge of the will." (Prob. Code, § 8226, subd. (c); further undesignated section references are to the Probate Code.)
On September 24, 2007, the probate court entered an order determining Decedent died intestate. Samuel had notice of the proceedings but did not file a petition for probate of Decedent's 1994 will. Petitioner did not file her petition to probate the will until August 20, 2008. The trial court nevertheless concluded Petitioner filed her petition within 60 days of first obtaining knowledge of the will. Although the record clearly established Petitioner and Samuel knew more than 60 days before Petitioner filed her petition that Decedent had executed a will in 1994, the court concluded they did not learn until July 11, 2008, that the original of the will was still in existence.
Objectors challenge the trial court's ruling in this regard. They argue Petitioner had knowledge of the will more than 60 days before filing her petition, notwithstanding the fact she did not know the whereabouts of the original. They cite section 8000, subdivision (b), which states: "A petition for probate of the decedent's will may be made regardless of whether the will is in the petitioner's possession or is lost, destroyed, or beyond the jurisdiction of the state." They argue Samuel or Petitioner could have petitioned for probate of Decedent's 1994 will even without the original, and their failure to do so is a bar to the later petition.
Petitioner counters that the trial court ruled in her favor on the issue of timeliness in an order issued on November 10, 2008, and that order is not appealable. She cites sections 1300 and 1303, which list the types of Probate Court orders that are appealable, and do not include an order determining timeliness of a petition. "'[A]ppeals [that] may be taken from orders in probate proceedings are set forth in . . . the Probate Code, and its provisions are exclusive.'" (Estate of Stoddart (2004) 115 Cal.App.4th 1118, 1125-1126.) Furthermore, Petitioner argues, even if the order was appealable, Objectors failed to file a timely appeal.
Petitioner confuses appealability with reviewability. While the November 10, 2008, order may not have been appealable at the time it was issued, it may nevertheless be reviewable following entry of another appealable order or final judgment. Appealability concerns whether a party may seek immediate review of a trial court ruling, thereby delaying further proceedings in the trial court until resolution of the appeal. But the fact that a particular ruling may not be appealable does not mean it is insulated from review at some later time. Petitioner does not contend the November 10, 2008, order was not reviewable, and we do not consider that issue.
On the issue of timeliness, it is undisputed Petitioner was aware of Decedent's 1994 will more than 60 days before she filed her petition. It is also undisputed that Petitioner did not become aware the original will was still in existence until less than 60 days before the filing. Therefore, the question on appeal is whether Petitioner's knowledge of the will, without knowledge that the original is still in existence, triggers her obligation to seek probate of the will.
As noted above, under section 8226, a petition to probate a will must be filed within 120 days of issuance of an order admitting another will to probate or determining the decedent to be intestate, or within "[s]ixty days after the proponent of the will first obtains knowledge of the will" (§ 8226, subd. (c)(2)), whichever is later. The question here is whether Petitioner "obtain[ed] knowledge of the will" within the meaning of the foregoing when she first learned Decedent had executed a will or later, when she first learned the original of the will was still in existence. We conclude it is the latter.
Section 6124 reads: "If the testator's will was last in the testator's possession, the testator was competent until death, and neither the will nor a duplicate original of the will can be found after the testator's death, it is presumed that the testator destroyed the will with intent to revoke it. This presumption is a presumption affecting the burden of producing evidence."
In the present matter, it is undisputed Decedent's original will was last in her possession, she was competent until death and, until it surfaced in July 2008, the original of the will could not be found after Decedent's death. Lamb had herself represented to the court that the original of the will could not be found and must be presumed to have been destroyed by Decedent. There is nothing in the record to suggest that either Samuel or Petitioner had any information to rebut the presumption of destruction until the original will surfaced.
The question thus is whether one has "knowledge" of a will within the meaning of section 8226 at a time when it is presumed such will is no longer in existence.
In matters of statutory interpretation, our fundamental concern is with legislative intent. (Brown v. Kelly Broadcasting Co. (1989) 48 Cal.3d 711, 724.) We determine such intent by looking first to the words of the enactment, giving them their usual and ordinary meaning. (Trope v. Katz (1995) 11 Cal.4th 274, 280.) When uncertainty arises on a question of statutory construction, consideration must be given to the consequences which could flow from a given interpretation. (Dyna-Med, Inc. v. Fair Employment & Housing Com. (1987) 43 Cal.3d 1379, 1387.) Statutes should be construed to produce results which are reasonable and consistent with the legislative purpose. (People v. Jeffers (1987) 43 Cal.3d 984, 997.) "[W]here the language of a statutory provision is susceptible of two constructions, one of which, in application, will render it reasonable, fair and harmonious with its manifest purpose, and another which would be productive of absurd consequences, the former construction will be adopted." (Clements v. T. R. Bechtel Co. (1954) 43 Cal.2d 227, 233.)
Consistent with the foregoing principles, we are of the view that section 8226, subdivision (c)(2), must be interpreted to mean a petition may be filed within 60 days of obtaining knowledge of a present and existing will. This would not include where one has knowledge that a will was previously executed by the testator but is no longer believed to be in existence. Any other interpretation would lead to the absurd result that one who has no information to rebut a presumption that a pre-existing will was destroyed by the testator must nevertheless petition for probate of that will within 60 days or forever lose the right to do so if rebuttal information is later discovered. The petitioning party would be placed in the untenable position of being forced to make a frivolous claim under a will he or she does not believe exists, knowing the claim will ultimately be rejected.
We conclude the probate court correctly determined Petitioner's petition for probate of Decedent's will was timely.
Section 8000, subdivision (a), reads: "At any time after a decedent's death, any interested person may commence proceedings for administration of the estate of the decedent by a petition to the court for an order determining the date and place of the decedent's death and for either or both of the following: [¶] (1) Appointment of a personal representative. [¶] (2) Probate of the decedent's will." "Interested person" within the meaning of the foregoing includes "[a]n heir, devisee, child, spouse, creditor, beneficiary, and any other person having a property right in or claim against a trust estate or the estate of a decedent which may be affected by the proceeding." (§ 48, subd. (a)(1).)
In their objections to Petitioner's petition for probate of Decedent's 1994 will, Objectors asserted Petitioner lacks standing to pursue the petition because "she is not a person entitled to receive any part of the [D]ecedent's estate." The trial court rejected this argument, concluding Petitioner "does have standing as both 'an interested person' . . . as well [as] 'any other person having a property right in or claim against a trust estate or the estate of a decedent which may be affected by the proceeding,'" within the meaning of section 48, subdivision (a).
Objectors contend the probate court erred in this regard. However, their argument is limited to an assertion that, because neither Samuel nor Petitioner filed a timely petition for probate of the will, "they no longer qualified as 'interested persons.'" Inasmuch as we reject Objectors timeliness argument, we likewise reject their standing argument.
III Testamentary Intent
Objectors contend that, notwithstanding the terms of Decedent's 1994 will and trust, the evidence presented at trial demonstrates she never intended that any of her estate would be distributed to Samuel. They contend the provisions in those documents naming Samuel as the alternate beneficiary were the result of a "drafting mistake" by the attorneys who prepared the documents. According to Objectors, at the time she signed the will and trust, Decedent either did not notice the provision naming Samuel as the alternate beneficiary or did not understand its legal significance. Objectors also contend the evidence shows Decedent intended that her estate be distributed to her siblings rather than Samuel.
Objectors cite the following evidence to support their arguments:
1. Petitioner and Samuel had met Decedent only one time.
2. Linda Neal, a long-time friend of Decedent, testified that several years before Decedent died she began telling Neal that Decedent needed to write a will to take care of her sister and her sister's children.
3. Neal testified that Decedent told her the 1994 will and trust had not been written correctly.
4. According to Neal, when Decedent was in the hospital prior to her death, she was waiting for Neal to arrive so they could get an attorney to write up a will for Decedent, but Neal arrived four hours after Decedent died.
5. Lamb testified that in July 2007, when Decedent became ill, Lamb and her daughter came to Lincoln to visit Decedent in the hospital and help manage her affairs.
6. While Decedent was in the hospital, Lamb and her daughter went through Decedent's papers and found a copy of the 1994 will and trust. They took the documents to Decedent who waived them off and said: "Oh, no, no, no, I know what those are. I have something in my safe that takes care of that. And that's absolutely not what I want." This was confirmed by Lamb's daughter.
7. Lamb testified that Decedent talked to her about her prior lawsuit against Petitioner and Samuel and how she believed that they had defrauded her and did not want them to receive anything out of her estate.
8. Lamb further testified that, when Decedent stated she had something in her safe that took care of the will and trust, Jim Glassburn was in the room. According to Lamb's daughter, Decedent said Glassburn had the combination to the safe and had opened it many times. However, when Glassburn later tried to open the safe, he was unable to do so. After Decedent's death, Lamb obtained the combination to the safe from the manufacturer. However, no document was found in the safe to nullify the will and trust.
9. Lamb testified that Glassburn had earlier told her Decedent promised to pay him $250,000 out of the sale of the Lincoln property.
10. Glassburn is the person who turned Decedent's original will and trust over to Petitioner.
Objectors argue the foregoing evidence was admissible both to prove there was a latent ambiguity in the will and trust and to resolve that ambiguity. According to Objectors, the provision naming Samuel as a beneficiary in Decedent's will and trust was a latent ambiguity, in light of the extensive evidence showing Decedent never intended to leave anything to Samuel. Objectors argue the most likely explanation for the provision naming Samuel as a beneficiary is that it was a drafting error by the attorneys who prepared the documents.
There is no ambiguity in Decedent's will and trust, patent or latent. The documents state clearly that, in the event James predeceased Decedent, her estate would be distributed to Samuel. And even assuming Decedent made a mistake in signing testamentary documents that named Samuel as a beneficiary, the evidence suggests she was well aware of this mistake yet took no steps to correct it.
But there is substantial evidence in the record to suggest there was no mistake. According to the evidence presented at trial, the primary asset of the estate was the Lincoln property. Lamb testified that the property had been inherited by James from his parents, thereby making it his separate property. Under such circumstances, it is reasonable to infer James would have intended that the property pass on to his brother and thereby stay in the Kaneko family after he and Decedent passed on. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to infer Decedent, out of respect for her late companion, would have acquiesced in allowing the property to remain in the Kaneko family.
At trial, the parties stipulated to the introduction of portions of Glassburn's deposition testimony. Glassburn testified that, while he was at the hospital with Decedent and Neal Patterson, Patterson said to him that Decedent did not want Patterson to have her property and so Patterson was "stepping out of it." Glassburn also testified that he heard Patterson tell Lamb the same thing and to go home. Glassburn indicated that on his deathbed, James told Decedent she gets the property after he dies and, after she dies, it goes to the Kaneko family. Glassburn further testified that Decedent told him she wanted to follow that plan. Glassburn indicated that Decedent's siblings brought her documents to sign to give them the property but she refused to sign them. According to Glassburn, Decedent told them she wanted them to go home because they were not going to get anything.
"Where, as here, the probate court issues a statement of decision, and the parties fail to file any objections, we will infer that the probate court made all necessary implied factual findings to support its judgment. [Citation.] We next inquire whether substantial evidence supports those findings. [Citation.]" (Estate of Clementi (2008) 166 Cal.App.4th 375, 379.)
Objectors ignore the foregoing rule of appellate procedure in relying solely on the evidence in the record favorable to their position while ignoring all other evidence. For example, Objectors' claim that Decedent had a document in her safe that nullified the 1994 will and trust is based solely on the self-serving testimony of Lamb and her daughter. This testimony was refuted by that of Glassburn.
As for Neal, Decedent's close friend, she testified that Decedent kept telling her she wanted to take care of Lamb and her children. Neal also testified that Decedent told her that Decedent's will had not been prepared properly and she needed to take care of it. However, Neal also testified that, at the time, she did not know Decedent had a will. In other words, Neal testified she did not know Decedent had a will while also testifying that Decedent told her the will had not been prepared properly and needed to be changed. Furthermore, Neal testified Decedent was waiting for Neal to arrive in order for them to get an attorney to prepare a new will for Decedent. This suggests, contrary to Objectors' assertions, that Decedent had not in fact nullified the 1994 will by way of a document that at one time was in Decedent's safe.
The probate court found the will had been properly executed and contained no ambiguity. The court further found Objectors failed to prove the will and trust had been revoked by Decedent. These finding are supported by the record, considered as a whole.
IV Prior Settlement Agreement
Objectors contend any claim by Petitioner to Decedent's estate is barred by equitable estoppel by virtue of the settlement and release agreement signed by Petitioner and Samuel in 2000 that resolved their dispute with Decedent. Objectors argue the settlement agreement should be considered in context, including the fact Decedent barely knew Petitioner and Samuel, she had gotten into a dispute with them over money, Petitioner and Samuel failed to disclose to Decedent that they intended to assert a claim against her estate, and Decedent wanted her estate to go to Lamb and her children. According to Objectors, "logic and common sense dictate that the court should find that (1) it is highly unlikely that [Decedent] at any time ever intended to leave [Samuel] any part of her estate." Therefore, they argue, the probate court should have concluded Petitioner is barred by equitable estoppel from asserting a claim on Decedent's estate.
We fail to follow the logic of Objectors' estoppel argument. The essence of equitable estoppel is that one has, by false statements or conduct, led another to do that which he or she would not otherwise have done and as a result the other has suffered injury. (In re Lisa R. (1975) 13 Cal.3d 636, 645.) A claim of equitable estoppel requires four elements: "(1) the party to be estopped must be apprised of the facts; (2) he must intend that his conduct shall be acted upon, or must so act that the party asserting the estoppel had a right to believe it was so intended; (3) the other party must be ignorant of the true state of facts; and (4) he must rely upon the conduct to his injury." (Driscoll v. City of Los Angeles (1967) 67 Cal.2d 297, 305.)
Objectors fail to explain how equitable estoppel applies in this instance. Nor do they explain what bearing the settlement agreement has on the matter. If Objectors mean to suggest Petitioner is estopped to assert a claim on the estate because this was not Decedent's intent, that does not amount to equitable estoppel. There is no action by Petitioner or Samuel on which Decedent relied to her detriment. If, on the other hand, Objectors mean to suggest Petitioner and Samuel are estopped to assert a claim against the estate because they entered into the settlement agreement without informing Decedent of such future claim, their equitable estoppel argument again fails. The evidence suggests Decedent was well aware of any potential claim on her estate that could be asserted by Samuel if she failed to revoke her 1994 will. In addition, there is nothing to suggest Decedent relied on anything left unsaid by Petitioner and Samuel to her detriment. On the contrary, the evidence supports the trial court's conclusion that Decedent intended to leave her estate to Samuel, as she had agreed with James.
Apparently recognizing the weaknesses in their estoppel argument, Objectors switch gears in their reply brief and argue the settlement agreement itself encompassed Jean's claim on the estate, thereby barring that claim here. They argue that, at the time of the settlement agreement, the known dispute was Decedent's claim that Petitioner and Samuel had wrongfully taken money belonging to James's estate, of which Decedent was the sole beneficiary. Thus, they argue, "the settlement agreement was directly tied to disputes between [Decedent] and [Samuel and Petitioner] over matters arising from the 'mirror' wills and trusts made by [Decedent] and [James]." According to Objectors, "[i]n the context of the circumstances surrounding the execution of the settlement agreement the release language that was included obviously was intended to a [sic] total release of all claims that [Samuel] held as to [Decedent], including the right to claim from her estate."
We are not persuaded. The original dispute between Decedent on the one hand and Samuel and Petitioner on the other was over money that had been transferred to the latter before James's death. There was no dispute over who was entitled to the funds under James's will and trust and, hence, the settlement agreement did not arise from the mirror wills and trusts as Objectors contend.
The settlement agreement released Decedent "from any and all claims, demands, causes of action, obligations, damages, defenses, fees, costs, and/or liabilities, of any nature whatsoever, whether or not known, suspected or claimed, which [Petitioner and Samuel] ever had, or now has against [Decedent], and each of them (whether directly or indirectly) by reason of any act or omission concerning any matter or thing relating to or in connection with any transactions involving [Petitioner and Samuel] and any of [Decedent], whether or not asserted in the Action." It also released Decedent from "all known and unknown, foreseen and unforeseen claims" regarding "the Action and/or any transaction involving [Decedent] and [Petitioner and Samuel]."
At the time of the settlement agreement, Samuel and Petitioner had no claim on Decedent or her estate with respect to anything that might ultimately come their way by virtue of the 1994 will. By its very nature, such will was at all times subject to amendment or revocation by decedent. Any claim Petitioner and Samuel had did not materialize until Decedent died without having changed or cancelled the will. There is nothing in the language of the settlement agreement or the surrounding circumstances to suggest the parties to the settlement agreement intended it to encompass anything other than present and existing claims, whether known or unknown. Petitioner's claim to Decedent's estate did not exist at the time of the settlement.
We conclude the probate court did not err in admitting the will to probate.
The December 3, 2009, order admitting Decedent's 1994 will to probate is affirmed. Petitioner is awarded her costs on appeal.
We concur: BLEASE , Acting P. J. NICHOLSON , J.
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