The short answer is yes, but it’s not a straight path to the goal. The modern family structure continues to evolve from the Leave It To Beaver days to a more complex version of the Brady Bunch, with blended families made up of stepsiblings, half-siblings, and exes from multiple marriages and non-marital relationships. Add to this already complicated and fragile situation significant wealth and assets and it is no surprise that trusts and estates disputes are on the rise, making it ever more important to leave detailed instructions about your estate assets. This is especially true in Los Angeles, which has become a mecca for conflict, litigation and drama. In 2018, there were nearly 50,000 cases filed in probate courts across California, with almost 12,000 filed in Los Angeles County. While the rate of newly-filed probate cases in California has been on the rise, their disposition rates have decreased over the last decade, from 77% in 2008, to only 60% in 2017. This means more litigation for an increasing number of cases, costing families overall millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees and delaying the administration of their loved ones’ estates.
Why is Los Angeles such a magnet for probate litigation? It’s easy to assume that it’s because we have Hollywood and it attracts young, beautiful actors and other professionals with dreams of making it big, and that they end up marrying older, more successful executives in their second, third, or fourth marriages. These types of relationships do occur and exist, and unquestionably tend to disrupt the preexisting family dynamics and estate plans that have been in place for years.
But a very common and recurring probate litigation fact pattern includes claims between and among siblings, half, step and full. The problems oftentimes are masked or latent during the parents’ lifetime, and come to a head only on the parents’ demise or incapacity. Even if the parents’ estate plan provides for equal distribution among the children, some children may feel entitled to more because of their contribution in running the family business, or being their parents’ primary caregiver. The children may challenge last minute changes to their parents’ estate plan altering the percentages allocated to each child, accuse one another of elder abuse, or even sue the surviving parent for daring to move on and remarry (does it matter if they marry a caregiver or a chauffeur?).
Whatever the story is, litigation over family wealth is on the rise and shows no sign of stopping. And yet, many people are reluctant to make a plan to address the potential for litigation when they die or become incapacitated, including those families where the threat of litigation is real. Understandably, no one wants to envision loved ones serving legal papers on each other at a funeral instead of mourning their family member’s death. But denial all but assures family fights and expenses of litigation.
Whether you want to face it or not, the increase in family disputes is real, and so are the costs associated with it. The cost of litigation has increased exponentially in the digital era. Since digital media cannot actually be deleted (contrary to popular belief), countless emails, texts and social media posts can be subpoenaed in the discovery process. Add to the economic costs the emotional trauma it causes, and the likelihood of repairing family relationships post litigation, however it ends, is seemingly impossible. Aunt Sarah is never going to be invited to Uncle Jim’s for Thanksgiving after Uncle Jim spent $5 million successfully defending against her claim that Uncle Jim had manipulated their father into disinheriting her.
Regardless of the size of the estate or family dynamics, and even if there is no discord in the family currently, having a thoughtful and comprehensive estate plan specifically tailored to your wishes and desires, is essential to facilitating an expeditious transfer of your assets upon your death. Even if you already have an estate plan, it must be periodically updated to address any changes you may wish to make, including to incorporate new family members or changed feelings about them, and to ensure that it reflects the most current laws and procedures. Unless you are willing to risk the dissipation of your estate through years of litigation and the payment of the expenses of litigation, it is well worth spending the money now to have a thoughtful and strategic plan in place for later, just in case.
Los Angeles Super. Ct., 2018 Ann Rep., page 29, www.lacourt.org/newsmedia/uploads/1420194241454482018_AR_OnlinePDF.PDF (as of August 6, 2019).
 Jud. Council of Cal., 2018 Ct. Statistics Rep.: Statewide Caseload Trends, 2007–2008 Through 2016–2017, pages 73, 74, 102, 108, 166, www.courts.ca.gov/documents/2018-Court-Statistics- Report.pdf (as of August 6, 2019).