“Octa-Mom” wins one in court

“Octa-mom” Nadya Suleman became an object of derision when, after fertility-treatment-induced birth to octuplets, people learned she was a cash-strapped single mother who already had six children at home. But it’s her adversary that comes into ridicule in Friday’s decision in Suleman v. Superior Court , case no. G042509 (4th Dist. Jan. 8, 2010).

Paul Peterson filed a petition to appoint a guardian to handle financial affairs for the octuplets. (Peterson asserted that his non-profit organization wanted to ensure that financial compensation received from photos or video of the octuplets was preserved for their majority, which explains why no guardianship was sought for the remaining children.) Suleman moved to dismiss, and petitioned for a writ of mandate after the trial court denied her motion. As unsympathetic a person as Suleman may have been in the press, Peterson looks pretty bad, too:

This is an unprecedented, meritless effort by a stranger to a family to seek appointment of a guardian of the estates of the minor children. The petition‟s allegations are insufficient to infringe on a parent‟s civil rights or to rebut the presumption under California law that a parent is competent to manage the finances of his or her children. There is nothing in the petition that shows that the best interests of the children in the management of their finances are not being served by Suleman.

I always liked the joke “It’s on the internet, so it must be true!” Peterson learns that a court petition is not the time to try to take that whimsical expression seriously:

What information do we have before us? Petersen is not a relative under section 1510, subdivision (a). Petersen has never met and never had any contact with Suleman, her children, or any member of her family. All of the information presented in the petition for appointment of a guardian has come from television or the Internet. Petersen has provided no documentary evidence (much less admissible evidence) that raises a reasonable inference of wrongdoing. The information provided can be summed up as follows: Suleman and her children have appeared on television and the Internet, presumably in exchange for money. No evidence of financial mismanagement on the part of Suleman is offered. Petersen admits he does not know whether Suleman has taken the appropriate steps to ensure that 15 percent of each child‟s portion of any earnings has been placed into a [statutorily mandated] Coogan Trust Account.

(My emphasis, footnote omitted.) Not only does Suleman get the guardianship petition dismissed, she also succeeds in stopping an investigation ordered by the trial court into her family’s finances.

The average person following this on the news probably wrote off Suleman’s chances of prevailing. Lawyers not paying close attention may also have rolled their eyes, in light of the overwhelming odds against having a writ petition heard on the merits, let alone winning. However, Suleman presented a statutory interpretation issue of first impression of great importance — who has standing as “another person on behalf of the minor” under Probate Code section 1510, subdivision (a) to bring a guardianship petition — that not only caught the court’s eye, but actually resulted in a win.

This Took Me By Surprise

When an appeal from a probate order starts by telling you that the intestate’s daughter, girlfriend of 12 years, and estranged wife all claimed portions of the estate, I’m betting most people will suspect that the opinion will be about a dispute between the girlfriend and the wife.  If the case is Estate of Bonanno, case no. B200340 (2d Dist. July 22, 2008), though, you’d be wrong.

Turns out the dispute here is between the wife and daughter, and its not even about property per se.  It’s about an order obtained by the wife to have her share of the estate (determined in a settlement among the three) pass to her without administration, which reduced the administration fees to the daughter.

That was two surprises for me in as many paragraphs!

Beyond E-Filing

Wagner v. Wagner, case no. B197703 (2d Dist. Apr. 23, 2008) is more than just the latest installment of a familiar sad story: siblings fighting over Mom’s estate. It introduces the secret mental claim.

Claire moved in with and took care of her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother for the four years preceding her death. Claire was the successor trustee to her mother’s living trust, so she became the trustee upon her mother’s death. Brother Kent grew impatient and dissatisfied with his sister’s administration of the trust, and convinced her to hire a lawyer. At a meeting of Kent, Claire, and the attorney, Claire told Kent that she intended to file a claim for compensation for the four years that she took care of their mother, but didn’t tell him the amount.

Claire never got around to filing the $200,000 claim until after Kent petitioned for an accounting and administration of the trust. This made the claim untimely. Give her points for originality in arguing for timeliness of her claim (emphasis added):

Anticipating this conclusion, Claire argues she effectively complied with this statute because she formed the claim in her mind within the one-year period and thus presented the claim, to herself, well within the statutory period. She reasons she was not required to present the claim in writing because she elected to proceed informally and was entitled, as trustee, to waive any defects in the presentation of the claim. The timeliness of the claim, she argues, is evidenced by her disclosure to Kent of her intent to submit the claim at their June 2004 meeting. According to Claire, presentation of the claim in this manner tolled the statutory one-year period while she administered the trust and prepared her accounting.

***

However, Claire’s assertion she was entitled to submit an oral claim (and what her brother calls “a secret mental claim”) is contrary to the requirements of the Probate Code.

And you thought e-filing was advanced!