Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

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Karen Wheeler, as administrator of the estate of Eugene Drayton, appealed a probate court judgment declaring Kristin Marvin was the biological child of Drayton, and was therefore an heir of Drayton for purposes of intestate succession. The probate court appointed Wheeler, who was Drayton's daughter, as the administrator of Drayton's estate. In her filings with the probate court, Wheeler identified herself and her brother as Drayton's only heirs. Marvin, however, later filed a petition with the probate court in which she claimed to also be a biological child of Drayton. She requested that the probate court consider the results of a DNA test allegedly showing that Drayton's half brother was Marvin's uncle and, therefore, indicating that Marvin was Drayton's daughter. Wheeler testified that she was unaware that Drayton had any children other than herself and her brother. She asserted that no one, including Drayton, had ever stated to her that Marvin was Drayton's child. Wheeler claimed to have met Marvin for the first time at a funeral held after the death of Drayton's mother, but, she said, Drayton did not introduce them. On appeal, Wheeler argued primarily that the probate court erred in considering the DNA test result, because the DNA samples were collected not by disinterested parties but by Marvin and Curtis, who then mailed them outside the presence of disinterested parties. Wheeler asserts that "there is a possibility that the samples were switched because they were in the exclusive possession of interested parties prior to being mailed to [the laboratory that performed the test]." She points out that the test result itself disclaims any responsibility for how the samples were collected and is based on the assumption that they were collected correctly. The Alabama Supreme Court found after review that Wheeler did not present any authority suggesting that the probate court could not admit and consider the DNA test if it believed the testimony of Curtis and Marvin describing how the DNA samples were collected and submitted. Accordingly, she did not show the probate court erred in considering the DNA test result based on how the samples were collected and submitted. View "Wheeler v. Marvin" on Justia Law

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Brianna McKee Haggerty appealed a probate court order finding that a trust agreement was validly amended, thereby excluding her from distribution. Haggerty’s aunt, Jeane Bertsch, created the trust in 2015. The trust agreement included the following reservation of rights: “The right by an acknowledged instrument in writing to revoke or amend this Agreement or any trust hereunder.” Bertsch drafted the disputed amendment in 2018. She signed the amendment and sent it to her former attorney, but she did not have it notarized. After Bertsch’s death, Haggerty argued that the 2018 amendment was invalid because it was not “acknowledged” as described in the trust agreement. The beneficiaries under the 2018 amendment responded that the amendment was “acknowledged” within the meaning of the trust agreement and, in any event, the method for amendment described in the trust agreement was not exclusive. The probate court found that the amendment was valid. To this, the Court of Appeal concurred and affirmed the probate court. View "Haggerty v. Thornton" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part the judgment of the superior court granting a partial summary judgment in favor of Defendants on count two of Plaintiff's second amended complaint seeking a declaratory judgment interpreting and/or reforming part of the Shea Family Living Trust, holding that the judgment was proper except as to reformation.At issue was a trust established by Patricia and William Shea that included stock issued by a particular bank. When William died, the bank redeemed its stock, and after Patricia died, the successor trustee distributed the remaining assets of the trust, which no longer included the bank stock. Plaintiffs, Patricia's nieces and nephews, brought this action, arguing that Plaintiffs were entitled to the proceeds from the sale of the bank stock. In count two, Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that the trust provided for a general devise of the bank stock and, alternatively, brought a claim for reformation. The court entered partial summary judgment for Defendant on count two of the complaint and denied and dismissed the reformation claim. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment as to the reformation claim and otherwise affirmed, holding that Defendant was entitled to summary judgment on the reformation claim. View "Connary v. Shea" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal concluded that the order denying the motion to vacate for extrinsic fraud is appealable in this case, and that misrepresentations of material fact in a conservator's account are treated as extrinsic fraud.The court held that a conservatee has no duty to investigate representations of fact in the conservator's account, unless the conservatee becomes aware of facts from which a reasonably prudent person would suspect wrongdoing. The court explained that, to set aside an order approving the conservator's account on the ground of extrinsic fraud, a conservatee is not required to establish that the misrepresentations of material fact in the account could not have been discovered prior to entry of the order approving the account. In this case, the probate court's ruling relied on legal authority that the court found unpersuasive because it placed a higher burden to investigate on the conservatee. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded for the probate court to exercise its discretion based on an accurate understanding of the applicable law. View "Hudson v. Foster" on Justia Law

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The petitioners in six cases before the Alabama Supreme Court were brothers Michael Todd Scoggins and Matthew Tyler-Crimson Scoggins. The brothers sought to set aside orders in some of the cases, to intervene in some of the cases, and to order the Circuit Court to permit the interpleader of funds by a third party in one case. The proceeds of a wrongful death settlement were to be used to purchase four annuities for the brothers; their father died in an industrial accident when they were children. The annuities provided for periodic payments and lump-sum payments on various dates. In 2010, the brothers' paternal grandfather Thomas Scoggins (through an attorney) petitioned to have Thomas named conservator for the brothers in order to "reopen" the wrongful-death action for the purpose of obtaining a ruling that a sale of the structured settlement-payment rights was in the best interests of the brother. Court documents would later reveal that the brothers' grandfather did not have authority to sell the payment rights, and that the attorney their grandfather hired to help with the payment rights paid himself from the brothers' trusts with "nearly every single disbursement .... made to himself with virtually no money being paid to the beneficiaries, Michael and Matthew." The brothers sued multiple parties relating to the sale of the payment rights and the mismanagement of their trusts. They moved the circuit court to set aside orders that empowered Thomas to sell certain structured-settlement-payment rights. The motion was denied without a rationale for the ruling. The Alabama Supreme Court granted the petition for the writ of mandamus in case number 1200107, which pertained to the circuit court's denial of the brothers' motion to set aside the circuit court's August 11, 2011, and November 21, 2011, orders in the wrongful-death action; the Court denied the petitions for the writ of mandamus in case numbers 1200103, 1200104, 1200105, and 1200106, which pertained to the circuit court's October 7, 2020, order denying Michael's motion to intervene in the Stratcap actions; and the Court granted the petition for the writ of mandamus in case number 1200102, which pertained to the circuit court's October 1, 2020, order denying American General's motion for interpleader relief in the 2019 action. View "Ex parte Michael Todd & Matthew Tyler-Crimson Scoggins." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the county court denying petitions to recover fees and expenses incurred by a nominated personal representative and his attorney who unsuccessfully probated a will that the attorney drafted, holding that the court's reasons for denying fees and expenses for services after the decedent's death were legally erroneous.The Supreme Court reversed the county court's denial of compensation for actions taken after the decedent's death and remanded the case, holding (1) the county court did not err in finding that claims for fees and expenses from the estate for services performed by the attorney prior to the decedent's death were time barred; (2) the court's reasons for denying expenses and fees for services after the decedent's death were erroneous; and (3) the remaining requests for relief were not supported by a discernible legal argument. View "In re Estate of Giventer" on Justia Law

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Steve and Russell Hartman, as personal representatives of the estate of Ray Hartman (the “Estate”), appealed an amended judgment entered after a bench trial. The Estate argued Ray lacked the capacity to contract, no valid contract for the sale of his farmstead and farmland existed, Trent Grager owed rent for the 2017 farming season, and Ray did not gift a tractor to Grager. Grager cross-appealed, arguing he was entitled to compensation for the Estate’s wrongful occupation of the farm. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed in part, concluding the district court did not err in finding Ray was capable of contracting, the 2016 agreement was a valid contract for the sale of the farmstead and farmland, Grager had no obligation to pay rent in 2017, and the tractor was gifted. The Supreme Court reversed in part, concluding the 2017 document did not supplement or alter the terms of the 2016 agreement, and Grager was entitled to compensation for the Estate’s wrongful occupation of the farm. The case was remanded for the court to determine Grager’s damages for the Estate’s wrongful occupation. View "Hartman, et al. v. Grager" on Justia Law

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The underlying judgment encompasses two probate petitions: the first petition was filed on April 26, 2011, by appellants, Everett Earle Pearce, Jr., and Flora Geraldene Crawford (collectively, Pearce Parties), and the second petition was filed on November 30, 2015, by Charles J. Briggs, Jr., and Margaret Briggs Arroyo (collectively, Briggs Parties), in their capacities as trustees of the Charles John Briggs Individual Living Trust Dated December 13, 1995. Each group of claimants filed a petition to establish their claims on the properties, and opposed the petition filed by the other group. The trial court ultimately entered a "Judgment After Trial," denying the Pearce Petition and granting the Briggs Petition. The Pearce Parties appealed.The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that Ruth L. Brigg's estate is not vested with a 43.75 percent interest in the Gibson Property. In this case, Ruth's will did not sever the joint tenancy in the Gibson Property under Civil Code section 683.2, Subdivision (a)(2). Nor was the joint tenancy in the Gibson Property severed by "other means," unrelated to Ruth's will, under Civil Code section 683.2, subdivision (a). The court also concluded that Ruth's estate is not vested with an undivided 25 percent interest in the Rosedale Property; the Pearce Parties' real property claims are time-barred; the trial court correctly concluded that Charles John Briggs, Sr's 1995 trust was the proper record owner of the relevant interests in the Gibson and Rosedale properties; and the remaining contentions raised by the Pearce Parties fail. View "Pearce v. Briggs" on Justia Law

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The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's award of damages after a bench trial that resulted in a judgment in favor of appellees and a group of state guaranty associations where the district court ruled that Allegiant Bank breached its fiduciary duties in administering seven trusts, and that PNC was liable for the breach as the successor-in-interest to National City Bank, which in turn had acquired Allegiant.The court concluded that the district court did not clearly err in calculating the compensatory damages award; even assuming for the sake of analysis that Missouri law does require damages to be readily ascertainable to award prejudgment interest, the court still found no basis for reversal of the award of prejudgment interest; assuming that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(a) was not the proper source of authority for the district court's correction of a clerical mistake, any error was harmless; considered in its entirety, the evidence supports an award of punitive damages; and the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney's fees and PNC's claims to the contrary are unavailing. View "Jo Ann Howard & Assoc., PC v. National City Bank" on Justia Law

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In this appeal concerning the validity of a Transfer of Death Agreement (TOD agreement) executed by Alton L. Flanders, III, the First Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court concluding that no reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff had met her burden of showing that Flanders lacked capacity at the time he entered into the TOD Agreement, holding that there was no reversible error.The TOD agreement in this case related to an account containing a subset of Flanders's assets for which Merrill Lynch acted as custodian. The agreement, if valid, avoided probate of an at-death transfer of the account assets to five designated beneficiaries, including Plaintiff, Flanders's daughter. After Flanders died intestate, Plaintiff claimed that Flanders lacked the mental capacity to enter into the TOD agreement. Merrill Lynch commenced this interpleader action. The district court granted summary judgment to the beneficiaries who consented to the distribution of the account assets per the terms of the TOD agreement. The First Circuit affirmed, holding that Plaintiff's claims on appeal were unavailing. View "Merrill Lynch v. Flanders-Borden" on Justia Law