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Let’s End This: Why bring motions for summary judgement…and why not

A motion for summary judgment is a technical device used for asking a court to rule on your case before conducting a full-blown trial. Summary judgment can only be used to decide questions of law—not fact. For example, if everyone agrees that a joint account was titled in the name of two people, then the court could rule that the account belongs to the surviving joint tenant by law because the facts are not in dispute. If, however, the parties do not agree on the facts, then a motion for summary judgment will not work to avoid trial.

Most probate court matters have some factual disagreements. For example, if you are challenging a Trustee’s management of Trust assets, the Trustee has to prove his actions were reasonable—that’s a factual determination. In that case, a summary judgment motion would likely not work.

The same is true for contesting a Trust or Will, which almost always requires a factual decision on whether an elder lacked capacity or was susceptible to undue influence. There could be a few rare cases where there is no evidence to establish a claim whatsoever, in which case summary judgment may be appropriate.

Beware, summary judgment motions carry a host of strict procedural rules that must be met or else the motion will be invalid before it is ever heard. For example, one of the most important procedural rules is the notice period—75 days is required. That time period increases to 80 days if notice is served by mail, 85 if served to an address outside California, and 95 days if the address is outside the U.S. (See CCP Section 437c(a).) And the hearing must be scheduled prior to the motion cut-off period, which is thirty days before trial.

Also, both the moving party and the responding party must prepare and file a separate statement of disputed and undisputed facts. (See CCP Section 437c(b)(3).) The separate statement allows the court to see the facts that each side claims to be disputed and undisputed. Keep in mind, the court can only grant a motion for summary judgment if there is no dispute on a material fact, so this separate statement is important.

So why bring a motion for summary judgment? If you have a case where the material facts are not disputed, or the opposing party has no evidence, then a motion for summary judgment can resolve the case without the cost of trial. But in most probate court cases, summary judgment will not be successful because nearly everything we do in probate matters turn on the facts—and nearly every fact is in dispute.

The bottom line: be wary of bringing a summary judgment motion, but if your case fits the standard, then consider ending your case before trial if you can.