New Year’s Resolution: Don’t Outsmart Yourself!

January 3, 2022 |

2022 New Year's Resolutions text on note pad with pen, smart phone and coffee

This is the time of year many of us resolve, intentionally or otherwise, to better ourselves. Most resolutions involve exercising more often, improving our general fitness, or losing weight. However, most of us don’t stick to those resolutions for long.

How about a different approach this year? Don’t set your sights unreachably high by trying for self-improvement. Instead, make your life better just by not outsmarting yourself.

Breslin v. Breslin is a probate case. It deals with the death of Don Kirchner in 2018. At that time, Mr. Kirchner held an estate valued at $3-4 million. He was survived only by some nieces and nephews. Mr. Kirchner’s trust directed that the majority of his estate should be distributed to persons and charitable organizations listed on what it referred to as “Exhibit A.” However, no such Exhibit A was located.

Nevertheless, while trying to locate Exhibit A, the trustee of Mr. Kirchner’s trust located a list of 24 charities as well as handwritten notes that appeared to set forth Mr. Kirchner’s intended distributions. The trustee filed a petition to determine the beneficiaries and distributions based on the list, in lieu of the actual Exhibit A. The charities who later appealed the decision, referred to as the “Pacific Parties,” filed nothing.

The trial court ordered the interested parties to mediation. Notice of that mediation was sent to all interested parties, as were approximately four notices that the mediation would be continued. Once again, the Pacific Parties filed nothing.

When the mediation finally took place, only a few of the charitable organizations appeared, as did Mr. Kirchner’s heirs. The Pacific Parties did not appear. The parties who did appear at the mediation reached a resolution awarding specific amounts to those who appeared and nothing to those who did not.

Following the seeming settlement of the estate, one charity filed a petition to approve the settlement. At that point, the Pacific Parties filed objections. This was their first appearance.

The probate court granted the petition to approve the settlement and denied the Pacific Parties’ objections on the ground they did not file a response to the petition to determine the beneficiaries and did not attend the mediation. The Pacific Parties appealed.

The Court of Appeal found the Pacific Parties’ approach to this matter without support. First, the Probate Code allows courts to order parties to mediation. By choosing not to participate in mediation, the Pacific Parties forfeited their right to challenge the results. “The probate court’s mediation order would be useless if a party could skip mediation and challenge the resulting settlement agreement.”

Similarly, the Court of Appeal had little sympathy for the Pacific Parties’ complaint that they were denied an evidentiary hearing. Probate Courts have the power to establish the procedure the parties will follow. Here, the court made participation in the mediation a prerequisite to an evidentiary proceeding. That precluded the Pacific Parties from requesting an evidentiary hearing after the mediation. It also prohibited them from raising on appeal what Mr. Kirchner’s actual intent was, as issues cannot be raised for the first time on appeal.

This New Year, take Breslin v. Breslin as a cautionary tale. When courts set low bars to comply with their procedural hurdles, it may well be worth your time and effort to comply. Otherwise, you may end up outsmarting yourself.

If you need guidance navigating probate or any other complex legal matter, please reach out.