California law allows for double damages in some probate litigation matters. In the March 2020 case of Estate of Ashlock, the California Fifth Appellate District issued an opinion certified for partial publication that clarified what “double damages” means under Section 859 of the California Probate Code.
The Facts of Ashlock
The Ashlock case has a long history in the California court system. This was the third appeal in the probate matter between Stacey Carlson and Gabriel Ashlock. Both parties claimed entitlement to the estate of Gabriel’s deceased father. Ultimately a judgment was entered against Stacey in a trust dispute, will contest, breach claims, and for financial abuse of a dependent adult. The California probate court also affirmed an award of attorney’s fees.
The monetary judgment against Stacey exceeded $11 million. The California probate court ordered that property held by Stacy be recovered pursuant to section 856. Double damages were awarded against Stacey under California Probate Code section 859. Stacey argued that the California probate court misinterpreted section 859 and awarded excessive damages against Stacey.
Recovery Of Property Under the California Probate Code
California Probate Code section 856 allows for the recovery of property to an estate and states:
Except as provided in Sections 853 and 854, if the court is satisfied that a conveyance, transfer, or other order should be made, the court shall make an order authorizing and directing the personal representative or other fiduciary, or the person having title to or possession of the property, to execute a conveyance or transfer to the person entitled thereto, or granting other appropriate relief.
As explained by the California appeals court:
An order granting relief under section 856 confers “the right to the possession of the property, and the right to hold the property, according to the terms of the order as if the property had been conveyed or transferred in accordance with the terms of the order.” (§ 857, subd. (b).)
“‘Section 856 clearly and unambiguously grants the probate court the power not only to order a conveyance or transfer to the person entitled to the property in question, but also to grant other appropriate relief.’” (Estate of Kraus (2010) 184 Cal.App.4th 103, 113–114 [108 Cal. Rptr. 3d 760].)
Double Damages To Punish The Wrongful Taking Of Property In California Probate
Section 859 of the California Probate Code states:
If a court finds that a person has in bad faith wrongfully taken, concealed, or disposed of property belonging to a conservatee, a minor, an elder, a dependent adult, a trust, or the estate of a decedent, or has taken, concealed, or disposed of the property by the use of undue influence in bad faith or through the commission of elder or dependent adult financial abuse, as defined in Section 15610.30 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, the person shall be liable for twice the value of the property recovered by an action under this part. In addition, except as otherwise required by law, including Section 15657.5 of the Welfare and Institutions Code, the person may, in the court’s discretion, be liable for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. The remedies provided in this section shall be in addition to any other remedies available in law to a person authorized to bring an action pursuant to this part.
Stacey argued that the California probate court misconstrued the double damages statute, specifically the phrase “twice the value of the property recovered.” Stacey argued that a petitioner cannot recover misappropriated property under section 856 and then also be awarded twice the value of the recovered property pursuant to section 859.
How Do You Calculate Damages Under California Probate Code Section 859?
The court looked at the plain language of section 859 and set forth a hypothetical:
Assume a petitioner’s action under section 850 et seq. alleges the misappropriation of a diamond ring valued at $10,000. The probate court finds the petitioner is entitled to the ring and, pursuant to section 856, orders that it be returned. The petitioner is then deemed to have “recovered” the property for purposes of section 859—even if the actual conveyance has yet to occur. (See § 857, subd. (b).) If the petitioner can show the opposing party acted in bad faith, the probate court must impose a penalty under section 859 because the statute says “the person shall be liable for twice the value of the property recovered.” (Ibid.) Consequently, the opposing party must return the ring and pay $20,000.
Therefore, the California Probate Code provides for the recovery of the actual property, plus twice the value of the recovered property. The obligation to return the property is established under California Probate Code 856. The liability is established under section 859, a punishment for culpable misconduct.