If you suspect a trust or will has been forged, you of course can turn to the courts for help. But if you falsely allege that a document is a forgery, don’t expect a judge to let you go unpunished.

That’s the lesson of a case recently decided by the California Court of Appeal (Bruno v Hopkins.)

Lynne Francis Bruno sued her mother, Mildred Francis, and two of her three sisters, in Santa Clara County Superior Court. She alleged that they had forged trust documents that divided her parents’ estate following the death of her father in a way that diminished her share.

The trial court rejected her claim, finding that the trust instruments were not forgeries. It also determined that her lawsuit had not been filed in good faith and ordered Lynne to pay more than $925,000 in fees and costs – far more than she would receive as a beneficiary of the trust.

Lynne appealed, arguing that she had a reasonable and good faith belief in the merits of her claim, and that the trial court had no right to impose a penalty greater than the amount she was due to receive from the trust.

Mildred and James Francis had been married for 67 years when he died in 2006. An attorney, James drafted their living trust between 1989 and 1991, and had various people type portions of the 31-page document during that time.

Under the terms of the trust, upon the death of one spouse, half of the trust assets would be allocated to the surviving spouse’s revocable trust. The other half would go to irrevocable family and marital trusts. Two of the daughters, Lynne and Gail, would each receive $200,000 from the revocable surviving spouse’s trust, with most of the remaining assets to be divided between the other two sisters.

At the time Mildred and James prepared their trust, the $200,000 gifts to Lynne and Gail represented about half of the trust’s total assets. Mildred testified that the couple felt at that time that Lynne and Gail needed more support than their two other daughters, Jane and Gwen, who had established careers and were more financially stable.

The situation changed later, and the couple took steps to leave a greater share of their assets to Jane and Gwen. The estate also grew over time; when Lynne filed her lawsuit in 2015, she estimated its value at over $4 million.

Lynne told the court that in 2006, when James was hospitalized after suffering a stroke, she went to her parents' home and found one of her father’s estate planning documents in the kitchen. She testified that she “perused” it, but could not recall the title of the document, the number of pages, or whether James had signed it.

She testified that it said the four children would receive equal shares of their father’s estate. She also said she never discussed the document with her mother or sisters.

Mildred told the court that only she and James knew where their trust documents were kept, which was in a locked safe in the crawlspace of a guestroom closet. No trust documents were in their kitchen, she testified.

James died in May of 2006, and Mildred became the sole trustee. Not until 2015 did she send the beneficiaries the notification required by California when a revocable trust becomes irrevocable because of the death of one or more of the settlers of the trust. Mildred suffered a stroke shortly afterward.

Lynne then filed her lawsuit, asking the court to remove Mildred as trustee and declare the trust instrument a forgery.

Experts hired by Lynne testified that the first and last pages of the trust were on different paper and had different fonts and other typographical characteristics, had inconsistent staple holes, and that some pages had been rubbed, scraped, and stained, to change their appearance.

The trial judge did not find these arguments convincing, noting that experts for the trust’s representative testified that James had had several different typists prepare parts of the trust over several years, using different word processing systems; that the trust’s experts said the paper and toner were at least 20 years old (long before the supposed forgery would have been prepared); and one of Lynne’s own experts said he found no “extraneous staining agent” on the pages.

None of Lynne’s three sisters supported her claims.

In its ruling, the trial court said it “did not find Lynne to be credible or her contentions…to be true.” It determined that she had fabricated her claim of having seen a different version of her father’s estate documents.

Mildred, on the other hand, was the “most reasonable and honest witness” who had “reasonable and credible” explanations for why she and James planned their estate as they did, the court said, and it was “unrealistic” to think Mildred would betray her late husband’s wishes.

Some portions of California’s probate rules do limit penalties to what a beneficiary receives, the appellate court noted. But “the court has broad equitable powers to protect the trust estate,” it pointed out. It would be unfair to allow a litigant to impose burdensome legal costs and fees on a trust by suing in bad faith and then avoid paying those costs.

The trial court was correct to require Lynne to pay the full $925,000 costs of her unwarranted challenge, the appellate justices said, even though those costs totaled far more than she was likely to receive as a beneficiary of the trust.

By Lynda I. Chung