So you want to appeal your Orange County Trust or Will lawsuit, are you sure? Overturning a trial court’s decision on a Trust or Will matter is not so easy. In fact, that is true of most trial court decisions, but even more so in probate because of the wide discretion given to judges in Probate Court.
Many people think they can appeal the trial court and have the appellate court hear the case anew and make a better decision. But the appellate court does not have the power to re-hear the case. Rather, the appellate court must adhere to one of three general standards when reviewing a case on appeal, and the two most commonly used standards are very difficult to meet for the appealing party. The three general appellate review standards are De Novo review, substantial evidence, and abuse of discretion.
De Novo Review Standard. De novo review is the best standard to use if you want to overturn a trial court decision, but it applies to very few appeals. De novo is Latin for “do it over, Jack!” or rather “start from the beginning; anew.” It applies to purely legal questions where the facts are undisputed by the parties. It allows the Appellate Court to consider the arguments anew and they are not constrained by what the trial court found. For this reason, De Novo review is the most favorable to the appealing party because they can argue the matter again as if a prior decision was not made.
Unfortunately, de novo review only applies to purely legal questions. For example, determining whether a California Will requires one witness or two is a legal question based on our Probate Code. You do not need any case-specific facts to answer that question. Therefore, if the trial court said one witness is sufficient, when the statute requires two witnesses, then the appellate court can correct that decision on appeal using de novo review.
Most trials involved many facts, documents and witnesses, however, which generally must be accepted as true on appeal. In most cases, an appeal is going to argue about the evidence present not about a pure legal question. And for that reason, de novo review is rarely used.
Substantial Evidence Standard. This is not at all what you would think it is. Under this standard, the appellate court simply looks at the facts as decided by the trial court and determines if there is enough evidence to support those factual conclusions. The appellate court is NOT allowed to re-litigate or re-hear the case. And “substantial evidence” can include facts that were contested during trial, as long as there are sufficient facts to support the trial court’s ruling. If there is substantial evidence, then the appellate court MUST approve the trial court ruling. This is true even where the appellate judges would have ruled differently on the facts had they been the trial judge.
In other words, this standard of review is not about whether the appellate court agrees with the trial court because that is irrelevant. Rather, it is just about whether the trial court had enough evidence on which to base its opinion. It does not have to be uncontested evidence either, any evidence will do. This is a very hard standard to meet on appeal and for that reason most appellants will not win if they are stuck using this standard of review (and most appellants are stuck with this standard).
The primary reason behind this standard of review is that the trial court is in a better position to assess the credibility of witnesses. When you can sit and watch someone testify, you are in a better position to determine if they are lying or not. And for that reason, factual determinations will be left alone unless there is no evidence at all to support them.
Abuse of Discretion Standard. This only applies in a matter where a trial court has the power to exercise discretion—it can do something or not do something. That is the case a lot of times in Probate Court matters. But a trial court’s decision will only be overturned on appeal if the trial court’s action is a clear case of abuse of discretion and a miscarriage of justice. It is not enough that the trial court could have made a “better” decision. To be abuse, the trial court’s action must exceed the bounds of reason when all circumstances are taken into account. In other words, it is another tough standard to meet on appeal.
As you can see, appealing your trial court’s decision is not so easy after all. But it helps to know what standard applies to you, and then argue as best you can to meet that standard.