California Court Decides Sonoma Trust Case

A Court of Appeals in California recently affirmed a trial court’s award of attorney fees to a trust. This decision came after the trust tried to enforce a conservation easement. The defendants in the case owned land and were accused of intentionally violating an easement. This case raises an important lesson about the role that conservation easements can play concerning trusts.


How the Case Arose


A conservation agreement refers to a voluntary arrangement between a landowner and either a land trust or government agency that limits land use to protect a property’s condition. When an entity violates a conservation agreement, courts are permitted to award injunctive relief as well as financial compensation. 


The defendants, in this case, owned land situated in California that was subject to a conservation agreement that was granted by previous owners in a favor of the trust. The defendants violated the easement by uprooting trees from the property to their newly constructed home on a nearby property, which led to the trees dying. The defendants also bulldozed a new road as well as damaged the land in other ways. The defendants then tried to conceal the damage by lying about what they’d done. 


The Trust proceeded to file a lawsuit in 2015 that sought damages and injunctive relief under the terms of an easement. As the court later described, the defendants responded to the trust’s complaint by denying all of the allegations that they violated the easement and denied any obligation to restore the easement property. 


The litigation continued for more than four years and led to a bench trial. The court held that the defendants were jointly and severally liable for damage to the property and also held the defendants’ corporation that owned the adjacent property liable. The court ultimately awarded compensation to the trust.


The Role of Conservation Easements in Estate Planning


Conservation easements benefit estates larger than the federal unified credit. For people in New York, it’s also worth considering easements for estates over $4,187,500 for similar purposes. Conservation easements are also helpful for individuals who have most of their assets tied into a property. Adequate estate planning can help to protect against situations where heirs must sell the income-producing property to pay estate taxes.


Adequate estate planning can help to avoid situations where heirs are required to sell the income-producing property to acquire enough money to pay estate taxes. Easements can also help to avoid estate taxes as well as permit heirs to continue operating the income-producing property. 


People with estates that are not subject to estate taxes and who own “undeveloped” property also discover that conservation easements can be helpful. Easements are frequently donated to charitable entities and provide the property owner a method to contribute to the public with substantial financial benefits as a type of charitable income tax deduction. Property subject to an easement is also restricted to reduced property taxes due to its lower assessed value.


Speak with an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney


If you or a loved one has questions or concerns about the estate planning process, one of the best things that you can do is to speak with a knowledgeable lawyer. Contact Ettinger Law Firm today to schedule a free case evaluation. ee case evaluation. 


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