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Interpreting the California Probate Code: Are Double Damages the Same as Punitive Damages? Does It Matter?

Are double damages under Probate Code Section 859 tantamount to punitive damages? No, not according to an opinion that the Alameda Court of Appeals recently published.

Why does it matter? Because the ruling and the legal strategies leading up to the decision hold valuable lessons for almost anyone who has anything to inherit. The case in question, Hill v. Superior Court, shows not only how probate litigation can lead to specific results but also how fast parts of this kind of litigation can be done.

Here’s the story:

In March 2013 two siblings, Deirdre Hill and Vincent Hughes, filed proceedings against their stepfather, Frank Staggers Sr. As co-executors of their mother’s estate, they alleged that Staggers had acted wrongfully in bad faith by hiding assets from them. Relying on the California Probate Code, they asked the Superior Court to demand that Staggers pay them double damages, i.e. twice the value of those assets. (Section 859 of the Probate Code lays out that a person is liable for double damages if he or she has “in bad faith wrongfully taken, concealed, or disposed of property belonging to . . . an elder . . . or the estate of a decedent.”)

Well, Frank senior died during the court proceedings, and his son, Frank Staggers Jr. took over as successor in interest. Frank junior argued last year in court that double damages are a form of punitive damages and that he, as a successor in interest, could not be held liable for such punitive damages. (His attorneys based their argument on Section 377.42 of the Code of Civil Procedure. It basically exempts a decedent’s successor in interest from having to pay punitive damages which may have been recoverable from the decedent.)

The trial court agreed with Frank junior. But the attorneys for Hill and Hughes, rather than waiting for the case to end, decided to challenge the decision. They responded by filing a writ with the Alameda appellate court.

In this case, the court did what it rarely does: It decided to hear the writ. In its ruling the court agreed with the siblings; it held that double damages under Section 859 of the Probate Code do not amount to punitive damages because Section 859 is remedial in nature rather than punitive. If the stepfather, i.e. Frank senior, had acted in bad faith, then double damages could indeed be recovered from his successor in interest, Frank junior. The appellate court returned the case to the trial court and directed it to include the potential recovery of double damages.

While the appellate court’s decision doesn’t mean that the siblings will prevail in their lawsuit against their stepfather, the case does show the importance of working with an attorney who has experience with these kinds of probate disputes. By filing a writ, the lawyers for Hill and Hughes were able to shortcut the legal process at least as it relates to one important detail.

By Kevin J. Moore