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The 8 Stages of California Trust & Estate Litigation: Appeal

February 21st, 2017

A party that loses at trial in a trust or estate dispute generally has a right to appeal.  California Probate Code Sections 1300-1304 enumerate the appealable orders in proceedings governed by the Probate Code.  These sections include specific appealable orders in conservatorship, trust, and estate disputes.

The time to appeal is governed by California Rule of Court 8.104(a)(1):

 Rule 8.104. Time to appeal

(a) Normal time

(1)  Unless a statute, rule 8.108, or rule 8.702 provides otherwise, a notice of appeal must be filed on or before the earliest of:

(A)  60 days after the superior court clerk serves on the party filing the notice of appeal a document entitled “Notice of Entry” of judgment or a file-stamped copy of the judgment, showing the date either was served;

(B)  60 days after the party filing the notice of appeal serves or is served by a party with a document entitled “Notice of Entry” of judgment or a file-stamped copy of the judgment, accompanied by proof of service; or

(C)  180 days after entry of judgment.

If the issue on appeal is a question of law, the court of appeal will review the trial court’s decision de novo.  The de novo standard of review means that the court of appeal will ignore the trial court’s determination of a question of law, which gives the appellant a reasonable chance of success on appeal if the trial court has made a mistake in its application of a well-settled rule of law.

Questions of fact, on the other hand, are reviewed under the substantial evidence standard.  This means that the court of appeal will affirm the trial court’s decision if there was substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s decision.

Discretionary decisions of the trial court (meaning decisions that do not finally resolve the merits of the case) are resolved under the abuse of discretion standard.  To reverse a discretionary decision of the trial court, the court of appeal must find that the trial court’s decision exceeded the bounds of reason, and that the decision was prejudicial to the appealing party.

This poses a substantial challenge to potential appellants in trust and estate disputes because the probate court is a court of equity, and the Probate Code provides probate judges with enormous equitable discretion.  Moreover, many important decisions in trust and estate disputes are discretionary decisions occurring long before final judgment.  Discretionary decisions in trust disputes include the suspension or removal of a trustee, and determining what trustee and attorney fees are reasonable.  Litigants seeking to reverse a discretionary decision of the probate court should know that, usually, they face low odds of success.

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