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Florentina Hernandez et al v. Patricia Claudine Kieferle

October 31, 2011

FLORENTINA HERNANDEZ ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND RESPONDENTS,
v.
PATRICIA CLAUDINE KIEFERLE, AS TRUSTEE, ETC. DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from orders of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Reva G. Goetz, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BP111578)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Manella, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Reversed and remanded with directions.

In the underlying action, the probate court invalidated an amendment to a trust that made appellant Patricia Claudine Kieferle trustee and sole beneficiary of the trust estate. The probate court ruled that the amendment failed under Probate Code section 21350 et seq., which establishes a rebuttable presumption that testamentary transfers to "care custodians" are the product of fraud, duress, menace or undue influence.*fn1 We conclude that the court erred in failing to apply the exception to the presumption found in section 21351, subdivision (a), where the transferor is "related by blood or marriage" to the transferee. We therefore reverse the probate court's orders.

RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. First and Second Amendments to Gertrude G. Kieferle's 2004 Trust

Gertrude G. Kieferle was born in 1920. Appellant Patricia Claudine Kieferle (Claudine) is Gertrude's step-daughter by Gertrude's marriage to Eugene J. Kieferle.*fn2 Although Eugene had several daughters, including Claudine, Gertrude had no children of her own. In 1994, respondents Florentina Hernandez and Emigdio Hernandez became Gertrude's and Eugene's next-door neighbors. The following year, Claudine moved to Alaska. After Eugene died in 1997, Claudine had little contact with Gertrude from 1998 to 2004.

In June 2004, Gertrude executed a will and established the trust at issue in this action. The will transferred Gertrude's estate to the trust. Under the original terms of the trust, upon Gertrude's death, Florentina Hernandez was to receive $10,000 from Gertrude's estate, but no property was to be distributed to Claudine. In August 2004, Gertrude amended the trust to name the Hernandezes as the trustees upon her death and as principal beneficiaries of the trust estate (first amendment).*fn3

On February 15, 2008, shortly after Claudine began a visit with Gertrude, Gertrude executed a new will and again amended the 2004 trust (second amendment). The will revoked all previous wills, bequeathed Gertrude's estate to the trust, and named Claudine as her executor. The second amendment to the trust revoked the key provisions of the first amendment, substituted Claudine for the Hernandezes as trustee upon Gertrude's death, and made Claudine the sole beneficiary of the trust estate. On May 27, 2008, Gertrude died.

B. Underlying Proceedings

1. Petitions

On July 10, 2008, Claudine filed a petition as trustee, seeking an order confirming as trust assets a bank account, a car, and Gertrude's personal effects. On August 29, 2008, the Hernandezes, asserting their status as trustees and beneficiaries under the first amendment, filed a petition challenging the second amendment. Their petition alleged that Gertrude lacked the mental capacity to execute the second amendment, and that the second amendment was the product of "fraud, misrepresentation, elder abuse, and undue influence." The Hernandezes requested an order confirming their status as trustees, invalidating the second amendment, and directing an accounting. In response, Claudine filed a motion to dismiss the Hernandezes' petition, contending that they lacked standing to submit a petition or otherwise intervene in the action. She maintained that the first amendment was the product of undue influence by the Hernandezes, and that the transfer of property to them failed under the care custodian presumption (§21350 et seq.).

The probate court conducted a bench trial on the Hernandezes' petition. The trial began on November 30, 2009, but was interrupted by a lengthy continuance. On December 21, 2009, during the trial, the Hernandezes filed a second petition, requesting the probate court to assume jurisdiction over the trust and order Claudine to post a $485,000 bond while she served as trustee. In support of the petition, they argued that only $1,000 remained in a trust-held bank account that once had a balance of $441,690.65.*fn4

2. The Hernandezes' Evidence

Beginning in the late 1980's, Eugene and Gertrude obtained estate planning services from attorney Stephen Oliver, who helped them create, amend, and revoke several wills and trusts. After Eugene's death, Oliver prepared a trust for Gertrude in 2000, and later prepared the 2004 trust and the first amendment to it. None of the wills and trusts he drafted for Eugene or Gertrude distributed property to Claudine or gave her authority over their estates.

Oliver testified that he did not prepare the will and second amendment to the 2004 trust that Gertrude executed on February 15, 2008. Aside from the substitution of Claudine's name for the Hernandezes' names, the language of the documents closely resembles the will and first amendment that Gertrude executed in 2004, although their print style differs from the 2004 documents.

Florentina Hernandez testified as follows: She and her husband became Gertrude's and Eugene's neighbors in 1994, and established a friendship with them. According to Hernandez, Gertrude often said that she hated Eugene's children. Hernandez never saw Claudine in Gertrude's company before June 2007, when Claudine visited Gertrude.

After Eugene died in 1997, Hernandez and Gertrude became closer friends. Until mid-2004, Gertrude cared for herself, although Hernandez occasionally bought food for her and helped her in other ways. In May or June 2004, a fall injured Gertrude, who then moved temporarily to a nursing home. When Gertrude returned to her home in August 2004, she hired a caregiver to assist her. From 2005 to 2008, at Gertrude's request, Hernandez sometimes wrote checks on Gertrude's accounts payable to herself, cashed them, and gave the cash to Gertrude. At trial, Hernandez maintained that her assistance to Gertrude did not render her a caregiver. An excerpt from Hernandez's deposition was admitted, which disclosed that Hernandez had acknowledged preparing meals, doing laundry, and performing other tasks for Gertrude.

Hernandez also testified that in late January 2008, before Claudine began living with Gertrude, the Hernandezes and Gertrude met with attorney Blanca Pacheco. According to Hernandez, she arranged the meeting after Gertrude asked her to obtain a power of attorney enabling the Hernandezes to make medical decisions for Gertrude. Hernandez further stated that Pacheco prepared the power of attorney, but that Gertrude failed to pay for it because she was too ill.

Hernandez maintained that she played no role in the creation of Gertrude's 2004 trust and the two amendments to it. According to Hernandez, she first learned that she was a beneficiary of Gertrude's estate under the first amendment in September 2004, when Gertrude gave her copies of the trust documents. Later, Hernandez also safeguarded the original documents for Gertrude, at Gertrude's request. On February 11, 2008, while Claudine was residing with Gertrude, Hernandez inquired whether Gertrude wanted her to return the original documents. Gertrude initially rejected the offer, explaining that the documents would anger Claudine. Two days later, Gertrude asked for the documents, and Hernandez returned them. Hernandez heard nothing more regarding the documents after she left them with Gertrude.

Cesar Macedo, a financial consultant, testified that he had known Gertrude for seven years and had met with her over a dozen times, both at the bank where he previously worked and in Gertrude's home. On February 14, 2008, Gertrude phoned Macedo and asked him if he would notarize some documents. The following day, he went to Gertrude's home. When he arrived, Gertrude had the documents in her lap. After reviewing them, he discussed the documents with Gertrude. According to Macedo, Gertrude was engaged and aware and did not appear to be in distress. Had she appeared "any different" from the woman he had known, he would have "walked away." He notarized the amendment and served as a witness to the will. At trial, Macedo testified that although Claudine talked to him in the room in which Gertrude was sitting, he did not recall whether she was present when Gertrude signed the documents, as she was mostly out of his line of sight while he was conversing with Gertrude. An excerpt from Macedo's deposition was admitted, in which he stated that Claudine was present when the documents were executed.

Susan Bernatz, a psychologist, opined that on February 15, 2008, Gertrude was susceptible to undue influence by others, in view of her dementia, cognitive impairments, and medical problems. On cross-examination, Bernatz testified that Gertrude was similarly susceptible to ...


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