In Van Buskirk v. Van Buskirk, the Court of Appeal of California, Second District, considered the issue of personal jurisdiction in a California trust dispute in a case where Respondents had frequently availed themselves of the California courts, but fought personal jurisdiction when they found themselves on the other side of the case.
The Facts of Van Buskirk v. Van Buskirk
Ellen Van Buskirk is 92, a lifelong California resident, and is referred to in the opinion as the mother.
The mother was married to Walter. Walter died in 2005. The created a revocable living trust called “The VAN BUSKIRK TRUST dated August 24, 2005” (the Trust). The Trust was executed in Los Angeles County, and California law was chosen as the governing law.
The mother was the trustee of the Trust. Prior to 2017, the trust named several people to serve as successor trustees if the mother was unable to act as trustee, including Walter (the mother’s son, who lives in Santa Monica, California); Susan and Patricia (the mother’s twin daughters, who live in Idaho); and Charles Bluth (the mother’s brother, who lives in Nevada).
Between 2005 and 2016 the Trust was administered in California. After husband Walter’s death in 2005, Bluth began to help the mother administer the Trust.
September 30, 2016
The opinion describes September 30, 2016 as a “watershed for the family and its Trust.”
Walter’s (the mother’s son) version of the story goes like this:
He is the only child to have worked in the family real estate business. He spent time caring for his parents “more than any other child” in the family. He lived with and cared for his mother in their family home in Santa Monica until a medical condition hospitalized her at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, which later released her to a local rehabilitation facility. But on September 30, 2016, the son’s twin sisters—the daughters—conspired to kidnap Mother from that facility. One daughter and the other daughter’s child came at night to remove their mother from the facility, against medical advice, and to take her to Idaho, where the daughters live. The other daughter and Bluth assisted them. The mother remains in Idaho, isolated and under the undue influence of the daughters. When the son tried to visit his mother there, the daughters “and others acting in concert with them” have blocked his visits with “threats of violence.” The mother’s actions since 2016 ostensibly have cut the son out of the Trust and thus out of his inheritance. The Trust sold some of its California properties at fire sale prices. The son suspects these actions stem from his sisters’ manipulation and control of their mother. That is the son’s view of events.
Susan and Patricia (the mother’s daughters), and the mother, describe the situation as follows:
They say the son is a ne’er-do-well who neither went to college nor gained marketable skills but just lived off the family’s wealth. The mother fears her son’s anger management problem. When she fell and got hurt, her son abused her by locking her away without proper food or care, hoping to hasten her demise and his inheritance. To escape him, the mother left the California rehabilitation facility of her own free will. Although advanced in years, the mother continues to make independent personal and financial decisions, including the decisions to relocate permanently to Idaho and to disinherit her son. All her property transactions have been prudent and proper. The son’s allegations are simply “wild.” That is the mother’s and the daughters’ account.
During 2016 and 2017 the following trust-related events occurred:
- The mother removed her son as a successor trustee and her son and Bluth as beneficiaries.
- The mother registered the Trust in Idaho.
- Most of the Trust’s assets – more than 40 real properties and all bank accounts – were moved to Idaho.
- The mother filed four lawsuits in California between 2016 and 2018 concerning the Trust.
Walter, the son, took issue with his mother’s recent real estate transactions and filed this lawsuit, urging that the transactions violated the Trust’s interests and his interests. Walter sought an accounting and removal of the mother, the daughters, and Bluth as trustees.
The mother and the daughters moved to quash the son’s petition for lack of personal jurisdiction.
The California trial court ruled that the son failed to establish the mother’s, daughters’ and Bluth’s (collectively, Respondents), minimum contacts with California. The court declined jurisdiction, and the son appealed.
Personal Jurisdiction in A California Trust Dispute
As matters of California state law, personal jurisdiction rules are the same for civil and trust proceedings. Under California Probate Code section 17004: “The court may exercise jurisdiction in proceedings under this division on any basis permitted by Section 410.10 of the Code of Civil Procedure.”
California courts may exercise jurisdiction to determine matters concerning trust property located in California—particularly land—even if the trust is administered elsewhere.
Case-Linked Personal Jurisdiction Under California Law
Personal jurisdiction in California can be all-purpose (also called “general”) or case-linked (also called “specific”). This case focused on case-linked jurisdiction. With case-linked jurisdiction, the court may adjudicate only those disputes relating to defendants’ contacts with the forum.
A three-part test governs case-linked jurisdiction and is proper when:
(1) defendants have purposefully availed themselves of forum benefits;
(2) the controversy relates to the defendants’ contacts with the forum; and
(3) the exercise of jurisdiction comports with fair play and substantial justice.
Purposeful Availment Of the Forum Benefits
The first prong of the case-linked personal jurisdiction test for California trust disputes is whether defendants have purposefully availed themselves of forum benefits:
Defendants purposefully avail themselves of a forum’s benefits if they intentionally direct their activities at a forum such that, by virtue of the benefit the defendants receive, they should reasonably expect to be subject to jurisdiction there…By focusing on the defendants’ reasonable expectations, this requirement ensures defendants will not be haled into a jurisdiction solely because of fortuitous or attenuated contacts or because of the unilateral activity of another party.
Here, the Respondent mother, daughters, and mother’s brother intentionally connected with California for their own benefit. The Court reviewed all of the purposeful availment engaged in by Respondents:
- The mother’s acceptance of the trusteeship and trust benefits connected her to California.
- Since leaving California, the mother has filed four lawsuits in California state courts. Some of these lawsuits involve Trust property.
- Since leaving California, the mother has engaged in transactions aimed at extinguishing the Trust’s interests in this California real estate – the mother (or someone in her name) has been transacting about land in California.
- The daughters are successor beneficiaries and successor trustees of the Trust, which originated in California, which is governed by California law, and which has owned and still owns California real estate.
- The daughters participated in Trust transactions.
- The daughters or their agents physically came to the California rehabilitation facility to get their mother and to move her to Idaho, which triggered the Trust changes at issue.
In sum, the mother has been a longtime California resident, a California property owner, a California trust creator and participant, and a California plaintiff. The mother purposefully availed herself of California’s benefits, beyond question.
As for the daughters, the Court noted that the key point is California was the travel destination for the daughters and their agents. They chose to come to the state to accomplish results important to them—results that related to the dispute over control over the family Trust.
As for Bluth, he had some role in managing the California Trust, and participated in the Trust’s real estate transactions. Bluth assisted in moving his sister from California to Idaho, which was the event that changed everything about the Trust’s operation.
The court stated that:
A defendant need not physically enter California at all to be subject to personal jurisdiction here…Nor can the mother undo her lifelong California contacts by moving to a new state. No matter where they now live, Respondents’ activities have involved a trust that was created and managed in California, that is governed by California law, and that owned—and still owns—California real property. Respondents have purposefully availed themselves of the California forum.
The second prong of the case-linked personal jurisdiction test for California trust disputes is relatedness – whether the claims relate to the respondents’ contacts with California. There must be a substantial connection between the Respondents’ forum activities and the son’s claims.
The relatedness prong was easily satisfied for the court:
The son’s claims relate to Respondents’ contacts. Respondents are connected to California through the Trust, which is the topic of the son’s suit. His lawsuit asserts his mother, her daughters, and Bluth harmed him and the Trust by engaging in below-market California land deals. The son also argues the date farm transaction showed the mother created an impermissible conflict of interest. The son claims these transactions rendered Respondents unfit to serve as trustees. His lawsuit seeks appointment of a professional fiduciary as trustee and an accounting. The son alleges he asked for an accounting but Respondents have refused to supply one.
Is Exercising Personal Jurisdiction Fair?
The third prong of the case-linked personal jurisdiction test for California trust disputes is fairness. In assessing fairness, the court considers the “burden on the defendants, California’s interests in hearing this dispute, the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining convenient and effective relief, judicial economy, and the states’ shared interest in furthering fundamental substantive social policies.”
The Respondents are required to present a compelling case that exercising personal jurisdiction in California would be unreasonable.
Respondents urged the court to consider the mother’s advanced age, her health issues, and difficulty traveling from Idaho to California. The mother has lived in Idaho since 2016, and intends to remain there. She has cut most ties to California, and the Trust is registered in Idaho and most of its property is there. One of the daughters is undergoing cancer treatment in Idaho. The court determined that they did not meet the burden of showing that personal jurisdiction in California is unreasonable, stating:
It is fair to exercise jurisdiction here. As a resident of California, the son has a valid interest in obtaining relief in California for harm he claims from the sale of property in California. When it suited the mother’s purposes, she repeatedly has chosen to litigate in California from Idaho. Undisputedly, the daughters or their agents came to California to move the mother to Idaho… the daughters’ undisputed decision physically to come to California, either personally or via agent, is significant. It is fair they return to California to defend the actions following in the wake of the mother’s move. Bluth has been a successor trustee from the start of this Trust and has managed its affairs for his sister, who lived in California for 89 years. Bluth’s connection with California is deep and wide.
Personal jurisdiction in a California trust dispute is a factual case-by-case analysis. Here, the mother and daughter’s multiple lawsuits related to the Trust filed in California courts worked against them in their fight against personal jurisdiction when they were on the other side of the case. Read about more California trust disputes here, here, and here.