We think of courts as operating to protect our rights and dispense justice. That’s true, of course, but they also function by strict rules and schedules that must be followed if we are to get the justice we seek.

That lesson was delivered by the California Court of Appeal to heirs who believed they were unfairly deprived of their inheritance through forgery (Eric Hamilton v LaDonna Green) but chose to try to exercise their rights well past the probate code's 120-day statute of limitations to contest a trust after a trust notification was served.

Lena Grace Hamilton established a trust in 1991 which provided that her estate would be distributed to her two children, LaDonna Green and Eric Duane Hamilton, upon her death. If either LaDonna or Eric were not alive at the time of Lena’s death, their share would be distributed to their descendants.

A handwritten amendment to the trust bearing Lena’s purported signature, dated September 26, 2002,  changed that to read, “if one beneficiary is alive, all [Lena’s] properties shall go to the survivor.”

Eric died in 2004 and was survived by his two children, Eric Jr. and Dominic.

Lena died in 2019. LaDonna then informed Eric Jr. and Dominic that she was the sole beneficiary of Lena’s trust.because Eric Sr. had passed away. She provided the two sons with excerpts of the trust to substantiate her argument that she was the sole beneficiary.

Dominic and Eric Jr. asked LaDonna for a copy of the full trust instrument, but LaDonna refused their request.

The two sons filed a probate petition on January 13, 2020, seeking the removal of LaDonna as trustee, citing her failure to provide them with a complete copy of the trust instrument. They asked the court to order LaDonna to submit the original trust instruments, along with any amendments.

On April 17, 2020, in accordance with the probate code, LaDonna served the sons with a “notification by trustee.” The document included, in bold, capitalized letters, a notice that “you may not bring an action to contest the trust more than 120 days from the date the notification was served upon you.” Attached to the notice was a copy of the trust and the trust amendment.

More than 15 months later, on July 29, 2021, Dominic and Eric Jr. sued LaDonna in Los Angeles Superior Court for interference with their inheritance rights, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, and other misdeeds, and requested an accounting.

Their civil complaint alleged that the original trust entitled Eric Jr. and Dominic to succeed to their father’s trust interest and that “handwriting analysis” proved that the trust amendment was a forgery, created by LaDonna “for the purpose of stealing their inheritance.”

Each cause of action specifically pled the invalidity of the trust amendment as the basis for the relief they sought.

LaDonna filed a demurrer, asking the court to dismiss the sons’ complaint on the ground that each cause of action was time-barred because it was “an action to contest the trust” within the meaning of the probate code, subject to the code’s 120-day statute of limitations.

She argued that the complaint had the practical effect of being an action to contest the validity of the trust at issue because the sons' recover could only be granted if the court deemed that the trust amendment was invalid.

Dominic and Eric Jr. argued that the complaint did not meet the definition of a “contest,” and thus the statute of limitations did not apply.

The trial court agreed with LaDonna and sustained her demurrer, denying the sons an opportunity to amend their complaint. It ruled that the complaint did contest the trust, since “all of the allegations are really centered on the invalidity of the trust amendment due to forgery.” For that reason, the 120-day statute of limitations applied.

Dominic and Eric Jr. appealed, but the appellate justices upheld the trial court’s ruling.

The Cour of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that the lawsuit did contest the trust and was filed more than a year after LaDonna served them with the notification, so the trial court was justified in finding that their complaint was time-barred under the probate code’s 120-day statute of limitations.

Dominic and Eric Jr. failed to demonstrate that any amendment to their complaint could overcome this barrier, the justices said, so the trial judge acted correctly in sustaining the demurrer without leave to amend.

By Lynda I. Chung