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Monday, July 10, 2017

Contesting Wills in California

Q: What is a will contest?

California probate and estate administration attorneys have seen it all when it comes to people making claims against the estates of those who have died with a will, a process known as a “will contest”.

Well it certainly is not uncommon in California for long lost, estranged, unknown, or never-acknowledged children of newly-deceased celebrities to suddenly “surface” and make a claim against the estate. A celebrity's out-of-wedlock baby and a hush money payment to make it go away wouldn't raise an eyebrow today – – but it was a big deal in the 1920s!

Sid Grauman– – the showman and founder behind a series of old-time “movie palaces” including the famous California Chinese theater where legends of the silver screen are immortalized through cement hand and footprint ceremonies--reportedly had a claim made against his entire estate two weeks after his death in 1950.

A handwritten note in blue crayon dated 5 months earlier but postmarked the day of the  funeral purportedly bequeathed that Carrie Adair "my childhood sweetheart shall receive $32,000 in cash of my life's savings". Reportedly, the couple dated in the 1920s, she became pregnant, he gave her money and told her to "place the baby with an orphanage" but she returned to her hometown in Texas and the baby girl was raised by relatives.

Adair’s claim against Grauman’s entire estate was ultimately dismissed because "there was no proof of even common-law marriage and Adair's alleged daughter denied kinship".

Not just anyone can contest a will--they must have standing to raise objections. For example, someone who would have inherited under a prior will that was subsequently changed or a child who is left out or receives a disproportionate share under the will may have standing to object. These contests can be costly to litigate and can eat up the assets of an estate, resulting in smaller distributions of probate assets.

Not all assets are subject to probate. Assets which pass directly to designated beneficiaries without the time or expense of going through probate often include:

  • retirement accounts,
  • life insurance policies with designated beneficiaries,
  • bank accounts which have designated beneficiaries,
  • property owned by the decedent and a co-owner as "joint tenants with right of survivorship" or
  • property owned by a living trust.

The best way to ensure that your property is distributed in accordance with your wishes after you die and that your end-of-life directives will be followed is to see a skilled estate planning attorney as soon as possible. Unfortunately, death and disability can strike at any moment and you want your loved ones to be protected when the time comes.

If you need an estate plan, or are interested in modifying and existing will or trust, the Law Offices Berge & Berge can help. Call us at 408-389-6980 to schedule a consultation. From our offices in San Jose, we’ve proudly served clients in the South Bay Area of California for over 23 years.


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