Tips of the Trade - Using the Statement of Decision to Maximize Your Chances of Winning a Trust or Probate Appeal

CitationVol. 24 No. 4
Publication year2018
AuthorBy Alana H. Rotter, Esq.*
TIPS OF THE TRADE - USING THE STATEMENT OF DECISION TO MAXIMIZE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING A TRUST OR PROBATE APPEAL

By Alana H. Rotter, Esq.*

Statements of decision play a critical role in an appeal following a court trial: they frame the appellate court's review, and they set the parameters for what inferences the court will draw in favor of the appealed order. That makes the statement of decision process an important tool for litigators seeking to position their cases for appellate success.

Understanding statements of decision and the strategic opportunities they present is especially valuable for lawyers who handle probate proceedings, where court trials are common and there are more appealable orders than in civil cases. This article provides a roadmap of the process and key considerations along the way.

I. BACKGROUND

A statement of decision is a document explaining "the factual and legal basis for [the court's] decision as to each of the principal controverted issues at trial."1

Statements of decision are available in any proceeding where the court determines a question of fact, whether in the context of a traditional issue at law or an equitable issue.2 Many trust and probate proceedings fall under this umbrella, because, with the exception of the issue of appointment of a conservator, there is no general right to a jury trial under the Probate Code.3 Will contests and petitions brought under Probate Code sections 850 and 17200 are just a few examples of proceedings where parties should consider seeking statements of decision.

Statements of decision generally are not available for routine motions. There may be an exception when the court makes a factual finding that adversely affects a party's rights if appellate review cannot be accomplished without express findings, but such situations are the exception to the rule.4

II. WHY STATEMENTS OF DECISION MATTER

Understanding why statements of decision matter requires some background on the lens through which an appellate court views the lower court's order or judgment.

A trial court's factual findings are reviewed for substantial evidence.5 Under that standard, review is limited to whether there is any evidence that, if believed, would support the trial court's findings.6 It does not matter whether there is also evidence that would support different findings. If there is evidence supporting the trial court's findings, they will be affirmed.7

Where there is no statement of decision, the reviewing court will presume the trial court's order is correct and the trial court made all factual findings necessary to support the judgment.8 In other words, "the necessary findings of ultimate facts will be implied and the only issue on appeal is whether the implied findings are supported by substantial evidence."9

A statement of decision alters this standard. The statement of decision is still presumed to be correct, like any other order or judgment.10 But its express findings may reveal an error, for example, that a court presented with several alternative theories relied only on a theory that was invalid or unsupported by evidence. If there was no statement of decision, the appellate court would presume the trial court reached the alternative, valid ground and would affirm on that basis. There can be no such presumption, however, when a statement of decision expressly shows otherwise.

Statements of decision also impact the doctrine of implied findings in another way. If a statement of decision omits an issue, the reviewing court still will infer factual findings to support the judgment and review them under the substantial evidence standard, with one important exception.11 If the appellant timely brought a material omission to the trial court's attention before the statement of decision was finalized, the reviewing court will not imply findings to support the judgment on that issue.12 Identifying omissions and ambiguities, and thereby avoiding implied findings in favor of the judgment, is a losing party's primary goal in the statement of decision process.

III. SHOULD YOU REQUEST A STATEMENT OF DECISION?

Trial courts do not have to issue a statement of decision unless a party timely requests one. There lies the first strategic decision in the process — whether to request a statement.

The prevailing party ordinarily should not request a statement of decision. Without a statement, the reviewing court will infer the trial court resolved every factual dispute in the prevailing party's favor and will review those inferred findings under a favorable standard of review.

[Page 43]

Conversely, the losing party should request a statement of decision, because the statement may limit the inferences against it.

The challenge in applying these rules of thumb is that, as discussed below, the deadline for requesting a statement of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT