Williams v. Barnes (In re Barnes), E075543

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtFIELDS J.
PartiesEstate of RICHARD HENYARD BARNES, Deceased. v. CELESTINE BARNES, Objector and Appellant. JOANN BARNES WILLIAMS, Petitioner and Respondent,
Docket NumberE075543
Decision Date04 March 2022







In 2009, Richard Barnes (decedent Richard)[1] executed a will (2009 will), leaving property to his wife, objector and appellant Celestine Barnes (objector Celestine), and to his daughter from a previous marriage, petitioner and respondent Joann Barnes Williams (petitioner Joann). In 2011, decedent Richard and objector Celestine created a pour-over will and revocable living trust (collectively, 2011 trust), which had the effect of disinheriting petitioner Joann. They restated the trust in 2014 (2014 Trust), without any significant changes to petitioner Joann or objector Celestine's interests. Following decedent Richard's death in 2016, petitioner Joann filed a petition pursuant to Probate Code[2] section 17200 et seq., seeking to determine the validity of the trusts and alleging that decedent Richard suffered from progressive mental decline as the result of dementia and either lacked capacity to execute the trusts or did so as the result of undue influence.

Following a bench trial, the trial court issued a detailed statement of decision, which included findings that: (1) petitioner Joann had standing to challenge the validity of the trusts; (2) the trusts resulted from objector Celestine's undue influence over decedent Richard; (3) objector Celestine breached her fiduciary duty to decedent Richard; and (4) objector Celestine was liable for reimbursement of decedent Richard's estate with respect to any benefits wrongfully received by way of the trusts. Judgment was entered in favor of petitioner Joann on June 19, 2020. On August 28, the trial court awarded attorney fees to petitioner Joann in a postjudgment order.

On appeal, objector Celestine argues:[3] (1) the trial court erred in concluding petitioner Joann had standing to bring her claims; (2) petitioner Joann's purported failure to serve other interested parties deprived the trial court of jurisdiction, rendering the judgment void; (3) the trial court's findings of undue influence and breach of fiduciary duty are not supported by substantial evidence; and (4) the postjudgment order awarding attorney fees must be reversed upon reversal of the judgment. We find no merit in any of these arguments and affirm the judgment and postjudgment order.

A. Background

Decedent Richard and objector Celestine married in 2008. At the time, decedent Richard had two children from a prior marriage, petitioner Joann and Richard Barnes, Jr. In 2009, decedent Richard executed the 2009 Will, which provided that petitioner Joann would inherit certain identified assets, and objector Celestine would inherit the remainder upon decedent Richard's death.

In 2011, decedent Richard and objector Celestine executed a pour over will and revocable trust. The parties agree that the provisions of the 2011 Trust effectively disinherit petitioner Joann. Decedent Richard and objector Celestine amended and restated the trust in 2014, but they did not make any changes impacting petitioner Joann's or objector Celestine's stated interests. Decedent Richard died on March 4, 2016.

B. Procedural Posture of Case

On April 27, 2016, petitioner Joann filed a petition pursuant to Probate Code section 17200 to determine the existence or validity of the trust. The petition alleged that decedent Richard was medically diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2010, and that decedent Richard either lacked capacity to enter into the trusts or that the trusts were obtained by undue influence. Based upon these allegations, petitioner Joann requested: (1) a determination regarding the existence or validity of any trust document; (2) a determination of title to real property owned by decedent Richard at the time of his death; (3)a finding that objector Celestine breached her fiduciary duty to decedent Richard; (4)a finding that objector Celestine exercised undue influence to obtain the trusts; (5) a finding of elder abuse in violation of Welfare and Institutions Code section 15600 et seq.; and (6) the establishment of a constructive trust.

Objector Celestine filed an answer and opposition to the petition in which she admitted that decedent Richard suffered from Alzheimer's disease and that decedent Richard executed the 2009 Will. However, objector Celestine asserted that decedent Richard had never been declared incapacitated and intended to disinherit petitioner Joann by way of both the 2011 Trust and 2014 Trust. Her answer also asserted the purported affirmative defenses of "failure to state a cause of action," "unclean hands," "offset," "in pari delicto," statute of frauds, and the statute of limitations.

Prior to trial, the parties submitted a joint witness list, joint exhibit list, and joint statement of the case containing a "statement of claims and defenses." After an extensive colloquy with counsel regarding the statement of claims and defenses, [4] the trial court identified the following disputed issues for trial based upon the parties' written statement and oral representations to the court: (1) whether the 2011 Trust should be invalidated based upon decedent Richard's lack of capacity; (2) whether the 2014 Trust should be invalidated based upon decedent Richard's lack of capacity; (3) whether both trust documents should be invalidated based upon objector Celestine's exercise of undue influence; (4) whether objector Celestine committed elder abuse in violation of Welfare and Institutions Code section 15600 et seq.; (5) whether objector Celestine committed a breach of fiduciary duty owed to decedent Richard; (6) whether objector Celestine should be deemed to have predeceased decedent Richard pursuant to Probate Code section 259; (7) whether objector Celestine is liable for reimbursement of benefits received from decedent Richard's estate; and (8) whether objector Celestine's bond is liable for any reimbursement owed by objector Celestine. With respect to affirmative defenses, objector Celestine withdrew all of her purported defenses except for unclean hands and pari delicto.

C. Relevant Evidence at Trial

The parties stipulated to the following facts: (1) decedent Richard and objector Celestine were married in 2008; (2) they cohabitated as husband and wife during their marriage; (3) an attorney prepared the 2011 Trust documents; (4) a second attorney prepared the 2014 Trust documents; and (5) decedent Richard died in 2016.

Petitioner Joann offered the testimony of eight witnesses, including petitioner Joann, various family members, decedent Richard's former housekeeper, and a medical expert. In general, petitioner Joann testified that, following her father's marriage to objector Celestine, objector Celestine began isolating decedent Richard, detailing instances in which objector Celestine would monitor decedent Richard's phone conversations, intercept phone calls to decedent Richard, prevent her from obtaining information regarding decedent Richard's health, and return cards and gifts mailed to decedent Richard.

Other family members testified that objector Celestine engaged in similar isolating behavior. Several testified that objector Celestine prevented them from personally visiting decedent Richard; and decedent Richard's son testified that, on one occasion, objector Celestine met him at the front door of decedent Richard's home, brandished a firearm, and threatened to use it if he ever returned to try and visit decedent Richard.

Decedent Richard's former housekeeper testified that she had been employed by decedent Richard for years but was abruptly terminated from employment in 2012. She received a phone call from decedent Richard in which he spoke in a shaky voice and told her he no longer needed her services. The housekeeper could hear objector Celestine's voice in the background prompting decedent Richard regarding what to say.

Petitioner Joann's medical expert testified that he reviewed decedent Richard's medical records. He expressed the opinion that decedent Richard had begun to show early signs of dementia in 2006; a neurological examination indicated decedent Richard's memory began to markedly decline in 2010; and, by 2015, decedent Richard suffered from advanced dementia.

Objector Celestine offered the testimony of six witnesses, including objector Celestine, the two attorneys who prepared the challenged trust documents, a notary who was present during the execution of the 2014 Trust, the pastor who married decedent Richard and objector Celestine, and a medical expert. Objector Celestine testified that decedent Richard's children had always been hostile and disapproved of her marriage to decedent Richard. She testified that in 2011, petitioner Joann and decedent Richard's son sent various communications expressing their disapproval of decedent Richard's relationship with objector Celestine. This prompted decedent Richard to prepare the 2011 Trust to disinherit his children and "protect" objector Celestine.

The two attorneys who prepared the 2011 Trust and 2014 Trust documents testified that they personally met with decedent Richard, decedent Richard expressed his intentions with respect to each testamentary document, decedent Richard appeared capable of understanding the effect of the trust...

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