In Allen v. Stoddard (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 4 Dist., January 9, 2013), a California Court of Appeal considered how to resolve a conflict between two statutes that provide for different time periods during which a claimant can file a lawsuit to challenge distribution from an estate. One statute barred the lawsuit and the other allowed for it. The court ruled that when statutes directly conflict, newer and more specific statutes take precedence over older and more general statutes. In this case, claimant’s case was not time-barred and could proceed.
Richard Allen and James Humpert had been in a stable, long-term relationship, although they never entered a domestic partnership and did not marry during the period when same-sex marriage was legal in California. During the relationship, Humpert promised Allen that Allen “would be taken care of” should “anything happen” to Humpert. Allen believed this meant that should Humpert die, Allen would receive financial support from Humpert’s estate. Humpert died on October 29, 2010.
Allen filed a creditor’s claim against Humpert’s estate based on Humpert’s promise. On May 19, 2011, the estate sent Allen a formal rejection of his claim. Allen filed suit against Estelle Stoddard (Humpert’s sister, and administrator of his estate) on August 18, 2011; within three months, but 91 days after the date of the rejection. Stoddard demurred based on Probate Code Section 9353, which states that a claimant against an estate has 90 days after notice of rejection of the claim to file suit. The court granted dismissal and Allen appealed.
Section 9353 clearly requires suits such as Allen’s to be filed within 90 days of the rejection of his claim. Allen’s action came 91 days after the rejection seemingly making it time-barred. However, Code of Civil Procedure Section 366.3 states that persons who have claims against estates based on promises to make a distribution after death have a full year from the date of the decedent’s death to file suit. Allen’s action was based on such a promise by Humpert and was within a year of Humpert’s death.
The court acknowledged the two statutes directly conflict on the specific question of how much time a claimant against an estate has to file suit. This conflict can be resolved “by the well-established rule that where statutes are in irreconcilable conflict, a specific and later enacted statute trumps a general and earlier one.” Section 9353 is a general statute applying to all claims. Section 366.3 is a specific statute applying to a narrow class of claims. Further, Section 366.3 was enacted a decade after Section 9353. Therefore, if they cannot be reconciled, and they plainly cannot be, Section 366.3 prevails over Section 9353, the court said.
Allen’s lawsuit was not time-barred and he had one year from Humpert’s death to file his lawsuit as provided by Section 366.3. The dismissal judgment was reversed and returned to the trial court for further proceedings.