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When attorneys in a messy battle over a $1 million estate failed to settle by Friday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge William McKinstry took them to the woodshed, then kicked them out of his courtroom. First, he told three of the four attorneys that they had 20 minutes — total — to make closing arguments. And after they huddled to decide how to split up the time, McKinstry cut two of them off after their first sentence, telling them they lacked standing. The tense courtroom scene was the latest twist in In re the Collins Trust, 2002255983, in which the relatives of the late James Collins of Alameda want McKinstry to invalidate the man’s legacy to Barbara Hanson, who was a legal secretary at Collins’ lawyer’s firm. On the other side are Hanson’s attorney, Bette Epstein, W. Lance Russum — the attorney Hanson worked for who wrote Collins’ trust — and Hanson’s husband, Christopher. Russum has been a trustee for the estate, but under pressure from Collins’ family resigned last month. On Friday, McKinstry seemed pretty fed up with all of them. “Now that your client has resigned [as trustee], what standing do you have to address the court?” McKinstry snapped at Alameda solo H. Wayne Goodroe, who represents Russum. “He is now only a percipient witness. Are you going to take any more time?” After Goodroe sat down, McKinstry turned his wrath on Christopher Hanson. He was representing himself because his wife, Barbara, signed papers that gave Hanson her share of the disputed inheritance. (According to court papers, Hanson paid for his wife’s legal defense when she was convicted of embezzling money.) When Hanson began his closing argument, McKinstry shot him down, too. The judge read aloud a passage of state law and declared that Hanson’s wife has no legal power to sign over her share of the estate, which the plaintiffs’ attorney has estimated to be as much as $400,000. McKinstry glared over his horn-rimmed glasses at Hanson. “My question to you is, why are you taking up your wife’s [attorney's closing argument] time if you have no standing?” Hanson sat down. Finally, the attorneys that McKinstry did acknowledge quickly wrapped up their arguments: Plaintiffs’ attorney Laurence Padway and Barbara Hanson’s attorney Espstein, of Reed Smith Crosby Heafey, took just a few minutes to present their arguments. But the judge had another surprise for them. When Epstein finished her argument, McKinstry asked her if she knew who wrote the opinion in Estate of Swetmann, 85 Cal.App.4th 807 . Judge James Richman, Epstein replied. Richman, an Alameda County law and motion judge, wrote the 2000 First District Court of Appeal probate decision when he was sitting as a substitute judge. McKinstry ordered the attorneys to report to Richman, who has a reputation for coaxing lawyers into resolving discovery disputes, to continue settlement talks. If the talks are unsuccessful, they will return to his courtroom to finish the case. Last month, one of the key issues of dispute in the case was settled when Russum and Hanson agreed to step down as trustees of the estate. At that point, McKinstry pushed back the date for closing arguments for weeks in hopes that the parties could settle the case. When that didn’t happen, the attorneys reported to McKinstry’s court Friday. Collins’ family claims that Barbara Hanson, a convicted embezzler who had filed for bankruptcy, was in a position to have “undue influence” over the unsophisticated, lonely retiree, who was 78 when he died. But Hanson’s side argues that while Collins’ and Barbara Hanson’s friendship may have begun in Russum’s Alameda law office, it lasted well over a decade. Hanson even coordinated Collins’ home health care after Collins grew ill and Collins’ family members failed to keep in touch, Epstein says. In closing arguments, Padway said that Russum’s and Hanson’s actions were unethical. Russum and his employees — who have inherited from clients in the past — violated basic principles by encouraging such relationships, he argued. “We are not cocktail waitresses, and it is not appropriate for a client to give us a tip or for us to accept one,” the Alameda lawyer said. Epstein, an expert in estates and trusts, told McKinstry that the long, almost father-daughter type of relationship that Collins and Hanson shared doesn’t meet the legal definition of undue influence. “Barbara Hanson was kind to Jim Collins; she was his friend,” Epstein argued. “They may have had an unusual relationship, but it was genuine.”

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