California Court Resolves Ownership Presumptions in Probate Disputes

Family law addresses the rights of family members including spouses during marriages as well as after divorce. When one spouse passes away, however, complex estate planning issues can arise. 


In the recent Third District case of In Estate of Wall, a federal district court held that title presumption had authority over community property presumptions. The court also found that the surviving spouse in the case still won the case due to the role of undue influence. 


Benny Wall had two descendants with his first wife. Benny’s home 

was then foreclosed on and his daughter let him move into a residence she owned with her husband. The daughter charged Benny reduced rent, which allowed Benny to rebuild his credit as well as build back his savings account. 


Benny later met and married Cindy in 2008. Cindy moved in with Benny. Cindy and Benny did not commingle their assets. 


In 2010, Benny purchased a home that was titled as the property of a “married man” as his sole property.  Cindy was not listed on the title of the house. Cindy was also liable for the property’s corresponding loan. When Benny passed away in 2016, Cindy argued that she had a community interest in the property. 


When the case was heard by California Superior Court, Cindy argued that Benny told her that she partially owned the home. Cindy argued that Benny then requested Cindy sign a quitclaim deed in favor of Benny while assuring Cindy that the deed meant nothing.


Cindy also claimed that Benny wrote a $3,500 check to use in acquiring the home, later gave him an additional check, and paid for improvements made to the home. 


Cindy’s son and nephew also rented rooms in the house and Benny received these payments. The judge then ruled that the house was community property and that Cindy held a half interest in the house. 


The Third Circuit later heard this case. The court noted that Evidence Code section 662 states that the owner of legal title to property is presumed to be the owner of the full beneficial title. This presumption can only be rebutted through clear and convincing proof. The court also noted that Family Code Section 760 states that all property acquired by a married person during a marriage while domiciled in the state is community property. The court found that section 760 controlled over section 662 and as a result, the house was acquired during the marriage and was community property. 


Advice on Passing Your Home to Your Spouse


To avoid estate planning disputes, you should follow some important advice when passing your home on to your loved one. Some of these strategies include:


  • You might decide to create a will that passes on the home to your spouse. 
  • A transfer on death deed can be valuable if the home is your only valuable asset.
  • You could permit your spouse to purchase part of your property with the help of a new mortgage for which you might both be liable.


Contact a Knowledgeable Estate Planning Attorney


Estate planning has the potential to be a complex area of law. If you need help navigating an estate planning issue, you should not hesitate to speak with an experienced attorney. Contact Ettinger Law Firm today to schedule a free case evaluation.

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