Understanding the Impact of the Spousal Fiduciary Duty on Estate Planning

Posted March 21, 2017 in Estate Planning, Family Law by Michael Lonich.

We have outlined the spousal fiduciary duty on this blog before; now, we’re delving a bit deeper to discuss the impact of the spousal fiduciary duty on estate planning.  Traditionally, California courts rely on a common law burden-shifting framework when confronted with the possibility that a spouse has unduly influenced his/her spouse’s estate planning decisions.  However, a 2014 case from a California Court of Appeal—Lintz v. Lintz— took a different approach, and instead, relied on the statutory spousal fiduciary duty articulated in California Family Code section 721 to resolve an estate planning/undue influence claim.

The common law framework provides that the person alleging undue influence bears the burden of proof.  However, the challenger can shift the burden to the proponent of a testamentary instrument by establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, three elements: 1) a confidential relationship, 2) active procurement of the instrument, and 3) an undue benefit to the alleged influencer.

Departing from the common law, the Lintz court—faced with an allegedly abusive wife who intimidated her husband into amending his trust to her tremendous benefit and to the extreme detriment of her stepchildren—looked to Family Code section 721 when it decided in favor of the husband’s estate.  Section 721 creates a broad fiduciary duty between spouses that demands a duty of “the highest good faith and fair dealing.”  Further, neither spouse may take unfair advantage of the other.  As a result, if any inter-spousal transaction advantages only one spouse, a statutory presumption arises under section 721 that the advantaged spouse exercised undue influence.  The presumption is rebuttable—the advantaged spouse can demonstrate that the disadvantaged spouse’s action was freely and voluntarily made, with full knowledge of the facts, and with a complete understanding of the transaction.

California Family Code section 850 describes three categories of inter-spousal transactions: 1) community property to separate property, 2) separate property to community property, and 3) separate property of one spouse to separate property of other spouse.  Notably, the section does not consider transferring community or separate property to trusts.

The court concluded that section 721 applies because section 850 does include property transferred to revocable trusts—in Lintz, Wife’s undue influence caused Husband, via his trust, to transmute a large part of his separate property to community property.  Accordingly, the court held that Family Code section 721 creates a presumption of undue influence when one spouse names the other as a beneficiary in a revocable trust.

Criticism of the decision abounds—all estate plans that name a spouse as a beneficiary, by their very nature, benefit one spouse.  In turn, use of the Family Code undue influence presumption threatens to disturb all testamentary instruments, and litigation may flood the family courts as spouses seek to rebut the seemingly automatic presumption that Lintz creates.  On the other hand, some commenters believe Lintz does not indicate a new paradigm, but rather, showcases a court’s eagerness to remedy the serious injury inflicted by a spouse’s egregious influence.

At the very least, the Lintz case does demonstrate that estate planning and family law are deeply intertwined.  Consulting with an attorney to learn how a marriage or divorce can impact your testamentary wishes is always wise.  If you have any questions about your family law and/or estate planning needs, please contact the experienced attorneys at Lonich & Patton—we offer free half-hour consultations.

Lastly, please remember that each individual situation is unique, and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may detail general legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

SOURCES:

California Family Code section 721

California Family Code section 850

Lintz v. Lintz (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1346.

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