Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

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In January 2017, plaintiffs Lori Dougherty and Julie Lee's 89-year-old father passed away while living in Somerford Place, an elder residential care facility owned and operated by defendants Roseville Heritage Partners, Somerford Place, LLC, Five Star Quality Care, Inc., and Five Star Quality Care-Somerford, LLC. In July 2017, plaintiffs sued defendants, alleging elder abuse and wrongful death based upon the reckless and negligent care their father received while residing in defendants’ facility. Defendants appealed the trial court’s denial of their motion to compel arbitration and stay the action, contending the arbitration agreement did not contain any unconscionable or unlawful provisions. Alternatively, defendants argued the court abused its discretion by invalidating the agreement as a whole, rather than severing the offending provisions. The Court of Appeal found the arbitration agreement at issue here was "buried within the packet at pages 43 through 45," and "[b]ased on the adhesiveness of the agreement, and the oppression and surprise present," the Court concluded the trial court properly found the Agreement was imposed on a “take it or leave it” basis and evinced a high degree of procedural unconscionability. Under the sliding scale approach, only a low level of substantive unconscionability was required to render the arbitration agreement unenforceable. Likewise, the Court concurred that the arbitration agreement was substantively unconscionable, "particularly given the accompanying evidence of procedural unconscionability." The Court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court's declination to sever the offending provisions of the agreement, rather than invalidate the entire agreement. View "Dougherty v. Roseville Heritage Partners" on Justia Law

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Huntingdon College, a beneficiary of the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation Trust ("the Foundation"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus directing the Mobile Probate Court to vacate its order denying Huntingdon's motion to dismiss an action filed by the Foundation's trustees, on behalf of the Foundation, and to enter an order dismissing the action for lack of jurisdiction. Walter Bellingrath established the Foundation, a charitable trust ("the Trust Indenture"). Mr. Bellingrath contributed to the Foundation, both at its inception, and through his will and codicil, substantial property, including the Bellingrath Gardens ("the Gardens") and his stock in the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Beneficiaries of the Foundation included three privately supported Christian colleges: Huntingdon College, Rhodes College, and Stillman College. The Foundation’s trustees and the beneficiaries have historically disagreed as to whether the Trust Indenture contemplated the subsidy of the Gardens by the Foundation and, if so, to what extent and with what limitations, if any. The trustees had difficulty operating the Gardens based on agreed-upon caps to the Garden's subsidy, and have voted to increase the distribution amount to the Gardens. They sought declaratory relief in order to maintain a reserve for the repair and capital improvement of the Gardens, and to distribute to the Gardens, in the trustees' sole discretion, such amount of the Foundation's income they deemed necessary for the maintenance, repair and operation of the Gardens. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the the probate court lacked jurisdiction to modify the Mobile Circuit Court's final judgment approving a 2003 Amendment. The Supreme Court therefore granted the petition for a writ of mandamus and directed the probate court to dismiss the trustees' action. View "Ex parte Huntingdon College." on Justia Law

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This case stemmed from Carol McCoy Brown’s petition for an elective share of her decedent husband’s augmented estate. When Michael Orion Brown (the decedent) died intestate, she discovered that he had set aside multiple payable on death (POD) accounts for his children and grandchildren from a prior marriage. Carol filed a petition to recover a portion of the POD funds as part of the decedent’s augmented estate. The decedent’s children, Dorraine Pool and Michael J. Brown (the Heirs), challenged the petition. The magistrate court denied Carol's petition, concluding that she had not met her burden of demonstrating that the POD funds were quasi-community property as required by the elective share statutes. Carol appealed to the district court, which affirmed the magistrate court’s denial of the petition, and granted the Heirs attorney fees. Still aggrieved, Carol sought certiorari review by the Idaho Supreme Court. But finding no reversible error in either of the lower courts' decisions, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Brown v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Rodney Hogen appealed an order denying his motion and an order terminating a trust. He argued on appeal he should have received additional funds from the Trust. Specifically, Rodney argued the district court’s previous order, and the North Dakota Supreme Court’s opinion affirming the order, permitted only $208,000, and no additional funds, to be taken from his share. Rodney argued the prior order was binding and the order by the court denying his motion impermissibly changed the meaning of the prior order. Rodney also argues the court erred in terminating the Trust. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Matter of Hogen Trust B" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court finding that the petition filed by a trust's sole beneficiary seeking removal of the trustee violated the trust's no-contest clause and in entering summary judgment in the trustee's favor on its declaratory judgment claim, holding that the no-contest clause in the trust document was enforceable. After the beneficiary in this case stopped receiving distributions from the trust, he filed suit against the trustee for removal of the trustee and breach of trust. The trustee filed a counterclaim seeking a judgment declaring that the petition violated the trust instrument's no-contest clause and thus canceled and revoked all trust provisions in the beneficiary's favor. The circuit court sustained the motion for summary judgment on the trustee's counterclaim. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that because the beneficiary did not seek relief form the no-contest clause pursuant to Mo. Rev. Stat. 456.4-420 and instead filed a petition asserting the claims the settlor unambiguously stated would forfeit the beneficiary's interest in the trust, the circuit court properly found the petition violated the trust's no-contest clause. View "Knopik v. Shelby Investments, LLC" on Justia Law

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The estate of Ed Young, deceased, by and through its personal representative, Fannie Pollard, appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of H.C. Partnership d/b/a Hill Crest Behavioral Health Services ("Hill Crest") in a wrongful-death action alleging medical malpractice. On May 7, 2017, the estate of Ed Young sued Hill Crest alleging that Hill Crest caused Young's death on May 9, 2015, by improperly administering the antipsychotic drugs Haldol and Thorazine to Young as a chemical restraint without taking a proper medical history and evaluating him. The style of the complaint indicated that it was filed by the "Estate of Ed Young and Fannie M. Pollard as personal representative of the Estate of Ed Young." On May 8, 2017, the probate court appointed Fannie M. Pollard as administrator of Young's estate. On May 9, 2017, the two-year limitations period under Alabama's wrongful-death act expired. On June 15, 2017, the estate filed an amended complaint, adding additional claims against Hill Crest. The amended complaint listed as plaintiffs the estate and Pollard as the personal representative of the estate. The parties then engaged in discovery. In 2019, Hill Crest moved for summary judgment, arguing that Pollard was not the personal representative of the estate when the complaint was filed, and therefore she lacked capacity to bring suit. Furthermore, Hill Crest argued the complaint was a nullity and there was no properly filed underlying action to which Pollard's subsequent appointment as personal representative could relate. The Alabama Supreme Court found Hill Crest's argument regarding the relation-back doctrine as unavailing: "the relation-back doctrine 'simply recognizes and clarifies what has already occurred' in that application of the doctrine does not extend the limitations period but merely allows substitution of a party in a suit otherwise timely filed." Summary judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Pollard v. H.C. Partnership d/b/a Hill Crest Behavioral Health Services" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the circuit court granting summary judgment in favor of the trustee of a living trust and dismissing with prejudice the beneficiary's declaratory judgment action seeking a judicial interpretation of two provisions of the trust, holding that the circuit court erred in dismissing the beneficiary's complaint. In response to the declaratory judgment action, the trustee filed a counterclaim seeking a declaratory judgment that the beneficiary's action had violated a no-contest provision of the trust, and therefore, the circuit court should revoke the beneficiary's interest in the trust. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the trustee on her counterclaim and directed the beneficiary to pay the trustee attorney fees. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the beneficiary's complaint did not violate the no-contest provision of the trust and thus require the forfeiture of the beneficiary's interest in the trust. View "Hunter v. Hunter" on Justia Law

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The Attorney General sought an accounting relating to the Trust, alleging that Shine, a trustee, failed to fulfill his duties and failed to create a charitable organization, the “Livewire Lindskog Foundation.” The court removed without prejudice Shine and the other trustees. The other trustees were later dismissed from the case. During his trial, Shine agreed to permanently step down. Addressing whether Shine should be disgorged of fees he was paid as trustee, the court found “that Shine violated most, if not all of his fiduciary responsibilities and duties.” The court nonetheless entered judgment in favor of Shine on many of the examples of his alleged breaches because the Attorney General either failed to prove that Shine was grossly negligent or failed to prove specific damages. Based on instances in which the Attorney General met its burden of proof, the court ordered Shine to reimburse the Trust for $1,421,598. The Attorney General sought (Government Code section 12598) reasonable attorney fees and costs of $1,929,757.50. The court of appeal affirmed an award of $1,654,083.65, finding that Shine is precluded from seeking indemnification from the Trust. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to reduce the award based on the difference between the Attorney General’s goals and its results. View "Becerra v. Shine" on Justia Law

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Gary D. Foster and Stephen Foster were brothers who had a disagreement over the management of the "Foster Family 1989 Trust" ("the Trust"). Gary filed a "complaint" seeking an accounting and an inventory of the Trust and, subsequently, seeking to remove Stephen as the trustee of the Trust. The trial court entered a final judgment in favor of Gary and assessed damages. Stephen appealed. Finding no reversible error in the trial court’s decision, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. View "Foster v. Foster" on Justia Law

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Probate Code section 856 clearly and unambiguously grants the probate court the power not only to order a conveyance or transfer to the person entitled to the property in question, but also to grant other appropriate relief. In this consolidated probate matter involving Stacey Carlson and Gabriel Ashlock, Stacey challenged a judgment entered in a bifurcated proceeding on issues of damages and remedies. In the published portion of the opinion, the Court of Appeal applied de novo review and held that the proper interpretation of section 859 is reflected in Estate of Kraus, supra, 184 Cal.App.4th 103, and not Conservatorship of Ribal, (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 519. The court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Estate of Ashlock" on Justia Law