Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Statute Vesting Exclusive Jurisdiction in Superior Court Handling Probate of Estate Doesn’t Apply Where Estate Was Closed 27 Years Ago, Opinion Says; Heirs of Producer/Director/Writer Spar Over Ownership of Asset
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Pictured above is a cabin owned by filmmaker Frank Capra. The Third District Court of Appeal held yesterday that the superior court in Mono County, where the cabin is located, has non-exclusive jurisdiction over an action among heirs to determine ownership of the cabin.
An action over ownership of legendary director/producer/writer Frank Capra’s cabin in California’s Eastern Sierra was erroneously dismissed by a Mono Superior Court judge based on his perception that jurisdiction lies exclusively in Riverside County where the estate of the legendary director/producer/writer was probated, the Third District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
Nonexclusive jurisdiction does lie in Mono County, Justice Harry E. Hull Jr. wrote, because the cabin is located there. The opinion leaves it to the trial court to determine, on remand, whether venue is more appropriate there or in Los Angeles County, where the action was initially brought and where defendants Thomas Capra and his wife Kris Capra reside.
Producer Thomas Capra was one of three children of Frank and Lucille Capra. The cabin—and a federal permit to occupy it, given its presence on federal land—were among the assets to be shared by the offspring, under a trust.
Name on Permit
After Frank Capra’s death in 1991, the federal government declined to transfer the permit to three persons, saying that only one person or a married couple may be listed. The siblings agreed that the permit would be placed in the name of Thomas Capra—who now contends that the cabin belongs solely to him and his wife.
One of the three children, producer Frank Capra Jr., died in 2007. His sons, directors Frank Capra III and Jonathan Capra—joined their aunt Lucille Capra (Thomas Capra’s sister), in suing to establish their shares in the asset.
Mono Superior Court Judge Mark G. Magit sustained a demurrer without leave to amend, ordering that the action be dismissed, declaring that jurisdiction lies in Riverside. He relied on Probate Code §17000 which provides that “[t]he superior court having jurisdiction over” a trust “has exclusive jurisdiction of proceedings concerning the internal affairs of trusts.”
In his opinion reversing the judgment of dismissal, Hull said:
“[T]his action does not arise from the probate of Frank Sr.’s estate. It does not concern the settlement of the estate, a testamentary trust, or the enforcement of the probate court’s orders. It concerns what the parties did with the cabin and the permit after the estate had been settled and those assets had been transferred into an inter vivos trust that existed outside of probate. The administration of Frank Sr.’s estate has been closed since 1993, and the probate court did not assert any form of continuing jurisdiction or supervision over it. The probate court’s in rem jurisdiction over a decedent’s assets does not exist in the absence of a probate estate.”
“There is no estate subject to administration here, and the cabin and permit are no longer property of the estate….The Riverside County court thus is not the proper court to try this matter merely because it probated and closed a related estate 27 years ago. The trial court erred in dismissing the action based on lack of exclusive jurisdiction under Probate Code section 17000 and in finding that Riverside County Superior Court had exclusive jurisdiction to hear this matter.”
Matter of Venue
The jurist went on to say:
“Because the Mono County Superior Court has fundamental jurisdiction, and the Riverside County Superior Court does not have exclusive or continuing jurisdiction over this action, the question at issue is whether Mono County was a proper venue.”
He declined to indicate where the action should be tried, explaining:
“If this action is one over land, then Mono County is a proper venue….If, however, this is an action challenging the internal affairs of a trust, then Mono County may not be a proper venue as it does not appear to be the trust’s principal place of administration.”
That place, the plaintiffs assert, is Los Angeles County.
Hull’s opinion leaves it to the Mono Superior Court to make the call. But first, the opinion directs, the hearing on the demurrer is to resume so that the court may address bases other than jurisdiction.
Disqualification of Counsel
The opinion affirms an order by Magit denying the plaintiff’s motion to disqualify Woodland Hills attorney Emanuel Barling Jr. from representing Thomas Capra. Hull said the fact that Barling had represented Frank Capra Productions, Inc., in which the plaintiffs own shares, does not mean he has been a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
In a portion of the opinion that was not certified for publication, Hull declared moot the plaintiffs’ contention that Magit erred in declining, while the appeal was pending, to enjoin Thomas Capra from selling the cabin.
A real estate website reports that it was sold on Nov. 1 for $623,000.
The case is Capra v. Capra, 2020 S.O.S. 6110.
Kathleen Mary Kushi Carter and Heather P. Karl of the Costa Mesa firm of Ropers Majeski represented the plaintiffs and Barling acted for Thomas Capra.
Carter and Barling could not be reached yesterday and Karl said she is not authorized to comment.
The cabin is built on the shore of Silver Lake. Cartoonist Walter Lantz—the creator of Woody Woodpecker—also had a cabin abutting that lake, and actor Wallace Beery had one on an island in the lake.
Movie stars including Clark Gable and Betty Grable frequented the area’s lodge.
A Nov. 21, 2018 online KCBS report says of Frank Capra:
“When the six-time Academy Award winner wasn’t directing iconic movies, he and wife, Lou, would escape the Hollywood grind to go fishing in California’s High Sierra at their cabin purchased in 1948 on majestic Silver Lake.
“ ‘It’s surrounded by humongous mountain and they just go straight up and there’s snow on the top. It’s just a gorgeous place,’ Tom Capra said.
“Tom Capra recalled in 1966, at the end of his dad’s career, when Frank Capra was typing away in the cabin’s master bedroom.
“ ‘I mean, just shut the door and we’d hear the typewriter going for like four hours. Then he’d go fishing,’ he said.”
Legendary movie director Frank Capra, left, puts a gentle squeeze on the face of veteran actor Jimmy Stewart in 1985. Capra and Stewart made several classic movies together, including “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s Wonderful Life.”
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