California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division
Estate of SATISH TRIKHA Deceased.
SUCHITRA TRIKHA, Respondent. SATISH TRIKHA, JR., Appellant, v.
Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of Orange County No. 30-2010-00354963, Mary Fingal Schulte, Judge.
Mohammad A. Fakhreddine for Appellant.
Donna Bader for Respondent.
Satish Trikha, Jr. appeals from the probate court’s judgment sustaining a will contest and denying admission of the will to probate on the ground the decedent destroyed his will with the intent to revoke it. He contends the trial court misapplied Probate Code section 6124, which creates a presumption the testator destroyed the will with intent to revoke it where the 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. Satish, Jr. contends he introduced substantial contrary evidence to negate the revocation presumption, and the court erred in weighing his evidence in determining whether to apply the presumption. We agree the court prejudicially erred and therefore reverse the judgment.
Factual and Procedural Background
Fifty-nine-year-old Satish Trikha committed suicide in a Yorba Linda hotel room on October 27, 2009. At the time of his death, he was married to Suchitra Trikha,  although she had filed a marital dissolution action the previous December and divorce proceedings were pending. The couple had two sons, Neel and Rishi. Suchitra filed for divorce when she learned Satish had resumed contact with his two children from a prior relationship, Sharmila and Satish, Jr. (Satish, Jr.). The mother of these two children also had a son, Charles Arrieta.
The dispute at trial involved a will dated October 2, 2009. The will left Satish’s estate to Neel (25%), Rishi (25% in trust), Sharmila (17.5%), Satish, Jr. (17.5%), Charles (5%), and grandchildren Gio Sy (5% in trust) and Jenna (5% in trust). Satish designated his sister Santosh as executor.
Satish had possession of the original will, but no one could find it after his death. In March 2010, Satish, Jr. and Charles filed a petition to probate a copy of the will obtained from the attorney who prepared it because the original will was lost or stolen. Santosh subsequently filed a separate petition to probate the will, as did Neel and Rishi. Suchitra filed a will contest and opposed the petitions to probate the will, alleging Satish revoked the will by destroying it and his estate should pass by intestate succession. Under intestate succession, Suchitra would receive 100 percent of the couple’s community property (her 50 percent and Satish’s 50 percent) because they were still married when Satish died. (§ 6401, subds. (a) & (b).) She also would receive one-third of Satish’s separate property. (§ 6401, subd. (c).)
As a will contestant, Suchitra had the burden of proving Satish revoked his will by destroying it. (§ 8252, subd. (a) [“contestants of the will have the burden of proof of lack of testamentary intent or capacity, undue influence, fraud, duress, mistake, or revocation”].) Satish, Jr. however, had the initial burden of producing evidence under section 6124, which provides: “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.” The parties agreed the will was last in Satish’s possession, he was competent until death, and neither the will nor a duplicate original of the will was found after his death. They disagreed on whether he intended to revoke the will by destroying it.
The court tried the will contest in December 2011. Satish, Jr. and Charles, as proponents of the will, offered the following evidence. Lawyer Karla Shippey testified that in early October 2009 Satish retained her to draft a will, explaining he wanted to provide for his four children. She prepared the will, including an advance health care directive and power of attorney. She later added Charles and Satish’s two grandchildren at Satish’s request. After reviewing the will, Satish signed it in Shippey’s presence on October 5, 2009, approximately three weeks before his death. Shippey advised Satish he would need to amend or make a new will after the couple finalized their divorce to account for the property settlement and change of marital status. Shippey told Satish he could revoke the will at any time and explained the difference between dying with a will and intestate. Satish took the will with him when he left her office. She advised him to keep it in a secure place, such as a safety deposit box, or place it with an executor.
Suchitra, a board certified family practice physician for over 30 years, testified she and Satish married in 1985. She discovered in 1989 or 1990 that Satish had other children, Satish, Jr. and Sharmila. Satish agreed not to have any contact with them. She filed a petition to dissolve the marriage in December 2008 when she discovered an e-mail from his daughter. To explain why she served Satish with divorce papers, Suchitra handed him a copy of Sharmila’s e-mail. Suchitra explained Satish was very secretive and she had grown “tired of his lies.” She disapproved of Satish sending money to an older brother, Suchil, the patriarch or “godfather” of the family. Suchil was record owner of assets she believed belonged to the marital community, including the family home in Laguna Niguel, and had failed to transfer the property to the couple.
In an e-mail to Suchil in late December 2008, Suchitra asked for his help in resolving her split with Satish. She offered to dismiss the dissolution action if Satish would agree to “total transparency, ” to place “ALL [their] assets” in a trust for Neel and Rishi, and to disinherit Satish’s other children. Suchitra emphatically declared, “HE MUST DISINHERIT HIS OTHER CHILDREN IN WRITING as part of that trust, I cannot tolerate any monies that belong to Neel and Rishi going anywhere but to them.” At trial, Suchitra explained based on Indian culture she considered Satish’s other children an embarrassment or “black mark” on her family, and did not want her family or friends to learn that Satish had children from an earlier relationship.
In January 2009 Suchitra received an e-mail from Satish claiming “the deal” with Suchil was “done, ” meaning Suchil had transferred the Laguna Niguel property to them. On her part, Suchitra in subsequent e-mails tried to assure Satish she had no hidden assets, and reminded him to supply proof of the property arrangement with Suchil and to complete the trust.
According to Suchitra, Satish suffered from depression, but gave no indication he was contemplating suicide. At some point during the divorce proceedings, Satish grew violent, and Suchitra obtained a restraining order around June 2009. Suchitra last saw Satish a week before his death at a deposition in the divorce case. Before the deposition, she had not seen him since obtaining the restraining order. Suchitra claimed both she and Satish “didn’t want this divorce” and were trying to reconcile.
The day after Satish’s death, Suchitra retrieved some of his belongings from the coroner. She obtained his car and house keys, a laptop computer, credit cards and currency, and a bag containing divorce papers and other documents. Suchitra asserted there was no will among these documents. She also claimed she did not go through all the papers item by item; her close friends, including Anna Shaw (also known as Urmila), went through the material later.
The coroner informed Suchitra that Satish’s car was at the hotel where he had been staying. She and Neel drove to the hotel, looked in the car and trunk, but Suchitra did not recall finding any documents. She called her family lawyer, who told her she could enter the Placentia residence where Satish had been living. According to the coroner investigator’s case notes, Suchitra called the investigator on November 5, 2009, eight days after she had been notified of Satish’s death, and seven days after she had been to the Placentia house, and stated “she thinks the decedent may have been staying at another of their residences located at [redacted]. The decedent used this residence for his work office. He worked in computer sales.” It is not clear what prompted Suchitra to advise the coroner of this, or why she waited so long to provide the information.
Suchitra, Neel, and Shaw entered the locked residence using the keys the coroner gave her. Suchitra did not have a separate key to the Placentia home. Satish’s sister Santosh was the only other person who had a key to the residence. Suchitra saw a large box to the right of the front door labeled “To Neel and Rishi. I love you. Dad.” The box and others nearby contained the children’s memorabilia and ...