Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

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Terry Weems, as the personal representative of the estate of Terry Sutherland ("Terry"), deceased, the proponent of what was purported to be the will of Terry's mother, Gladys Elizabeth Stidham Sutherland ("Elizabeth"), appealed a probate court judgment entered in favor of Terry's siblings, Angela Long and Gary Sutherland, who contested that purported will. Elizabeth died in 2016. Angela petitioned to admit to probate a will her mother executed in 2002 which divided Elizabeth's property equally among her three children. The 2002 will named Angela as the executor of the estate. Shortly thereafter, Terry petitioned the probate court to enter an order admitting a different will to probate that, he said, Elizabeth had executed in 2013 ("the 2013 will"); he also requested that the probate court issue letters testamentary to him as the executor of Elizabeth's estate. That will revoked "all prior wills and codicils" and named Terry as the executor of the estate. In August 2016, Angela petitioned the circuit court to remove the "administration" of Elizabeth's estate from probate court. In October 2017, after determining that its jurisdiction had not been properly invoked, the circuit court issued an order remanding the proceedings relating to Elizabeth's estate back to the probate court. Thereafter, the probate court entered an order acknowledging receipt of the proceedings from the circuit court. In September 2018, Terry died and Terry Weems was appointed to be the personal representative of his estate. At the time of Terry's death, neither the 2002 will nor the 2013 will had been admitted to probate and letters testamentary had not been issued. In 2019, the probate court received testimony and evidence from the parties, and issued an order finding that the procurement and execution of the 2013 will was unduly influenced by Terry. It also admitted the 2002 will to probate and issued letters testamentary to Angela. Thereafter, Weems appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, finding that the probate court was required to transfer the contest after a demand to transfer was made; without it, the court had no jurisdiction to hold a hearing or to issue its order. Because the probate court lacked jurisdiction in this case, its judgment was void. View "Weems v. Long et al." on Justia Law

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Meg Jamison ("Meg"), individually and as next friend of her husband, John W. Jamison III ("John"), sought a writ of mandamus to direct the Jefferson Probate Court to set aside its order automatically renewing temporary letters of guardianship and conservatorship regarding John. The Alabama Supreme Court recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted trials in all courts, including the probate court, and it appreciated the constraints the pandemic placed on all courts to process cases in a timely manner. "This does not, however, excuse the probate court from acting in accordance with the strictures of 26-2A-107(a). Moreover, the probate court issued automatically renewing temporary-guardianship and temporary-conservatorship orders even before the pandemic. Accordingly, the probate court's May 20, 2020, order violated 26-2A-107(a)." The mandamus petition was granted, and the probate court was directed to set aside its automatic renewal appointing a temporary guardian. View "Ex parte Meg Jamison." on Justia Law

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Cases consolidated for review by the Idaho Supreme Court were appeals of three separate judgments ejecting three non-beneficiary parties from the property of an estate. The personal representative of the Estate of Victoria H. Smith (“the Estate”) brought three separate ejectment actions against the Law Office of Vernon K. Smith, LLC, and Vernon K. Smith Law, PC (collectively “VK Law”); David R. Gibson; and Vernon K. Smith, III (“Vernon III”), after each party refused his demands to vacate their respectively occupied properties. None of the parties were beneficiaries of the Estate. The district courts granted partial judgment on the pleadings in favor of the personal representative in all three actions, entering separate judgments ejecting Gibson, Vernon III, and VK Law from the Estate’s properties. On appeal, Appellants raised numerous issues relating to the personal representative’s authority to eject them from the properties. Ford Elsaesser, the personal representative of the Estate, argued on appeal that the district courts did not err in granting partial judgment on the pleadings because he had sufficient power over Estate property to bring an ejectment action on the Estate’s behalf. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court. View "Elsaesser v. Gibson" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine whether the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine could be invoked by a trustee to prevent the disclosure to a beneficiary of communications between the trustee and counsel pertaining to attorney fees expended from a trust corpus. To reach that issue, the Court had to first address the question of whether the Superior Court erred in disclaiming jurisdiction on the basis that the trial court’s order rejecting the privilege claim was not a collateral order, and immediately reviewable as such. The Supreme Court held unanimously that the Superior Court had immediate appellate jurisdiction to review the privilege question on the merits, and therefore erred in concluding otherwise. As to the privilege issue itself, the Superior Court indicated that, notwithstanding its perceived lack of jurisdiction, there was no evidence by which to substantiate a claim of privilege on the merits, nor any argument presented to the trial court in support thereof. For those reasons, the court was left to conclude that the privilege was unavailable under the circumstances and that the communications at issue were subject to disclosure. The Supreme Court did not reach a consensus on whether the privilege may be invoked in the trust context. Because disclosure would nevertheless result from the competing positions set forth by a majority of Justices, the lower court’s alternative ruling was affirmed by operation of law. View "In Re: Estate of McAleer" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the superior court granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant, as trustee of the Trust of Anna H. Blankstein, and dismissing Plaintiff's complaint for an accounting pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws 18-13-15(b), holding that Plaintiff was not entitled to relief.Plaintiff, the beneficiary of the Trust of Anna H. Blankstein, brought this action requesting an accounting pursuant to the Rhode Island Uniform Custodial Trust Act (RIUCTA). Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that, by its terms, the trust was not a custodial trust, and therefore, Plaintiff was not entitled to an accounting of the trust. The trial justice granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) Blankstein did not create a custodial trust because the trust did not meet the requirements set forth in RIUCTA; and (2) Plaintiff did not have standing as the administrator of the estate to request an accounting. View "Shorr v. Harris" on Justia Law

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A dispute arose concerning control over a deceased individual's remains. The trial court ruled that testimony regarding Decedent's purchase of a burial plot and gravestone in 1966 was adequate evidence of a written document instructing the method and manner of handling his remains as outlined in 21 O.S. 2011 section 1158(1). In furtherance of this finding, the trial court entered a ruling compelling the surviving spouse, who was appointed as personal representative, to bury Decedent's body. The personal representative appealed, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed the trial court's order granting injunctive relief. The Supreme Court held the Movants failed to present sufficient evidence of a document executed by the Decedent that satisfied the requirements of section 1158(1). View "In the Matter of the Estate of Downing" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal affirmed the probate court's approval of a settlement that excluded the nonparticipating parties as beneficiaries. The court concluded that the probate court has the power to order the parties into mediation, which the probate court did so here. In this case, the Pacific parties received notice of the mediation, but chose not to participate. The court explained that had the Pacific parties appeared at the initial probate hearing, for which they received notice, they would have had the opportunity to object to mediation. Instead, the Pacific parties waited until after the mediation, for which they also received notice, in addition to notices of continuances, to finally object to the result.The court rejected the Pacific parties' contention that the trustee failed in his duty to deal impartially with all beneficiaries, concluding that all interested parties received notification of the mediation, had an opportunity to participate, and the Pacific parties' failure to participate was not the fault of the trustee. The court also rejected the Pacific parties contentions that the trustee breached fiduciary duties for personal profit, and that the trustee failed to keep them reasonably informed about the mediation and his intent to execute the settlement agreement. Furthermore, the court concluded that there was no extrinsic fraud. View "Breslin v. Breslin" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the circuit court sustaining Defendant's plea in bar and dismissing Plaintiffs' action, holding that Plaintiffs had standing and were not collaterally estopped from pursuing the claims asserted in their complaint.Defendant, the matriarch of the Plofchan family, created a trust and named two of her children, Plaintiffs, as co-trustees. Defendant then petitioned the Supreme Court to appoint her daughter as her property guardian. The guardianship court denied relief, finding Defendant was not an incapacitated person. Plaintiffs then filed a complaint against Defendant seeking injunctive relief to prohibit Defendant from dissipating trust assets and interfering with the trust's administration. The circuit court sustained Defendant's plea in bar and dismissed the complaint. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the court abused its discretion in sustaining the plea in bar for collateral estoppel and lack of standing, and the errors were not harmless. View "Plofchan v. Plofchan" on Justia Law

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Debra Wilson and David Aubert married in September 2007. They separated ten years later, in June 2017. They had no children together, but each had adult children from prior marriages. Debra filed for divorce in July 2017. At Debra’s request, the court bifurcated the divorce from the property division. In July 2018 the court entered a decree of divorce and ordered that property and debt distribution would be determined at a later trial. A month after the divorce decree, but several months before the property division trial, David died. The personal representative of his estate, his daughter Laura Aubert, substituted as a party. After trial, the superior court divided the marital property 90% to 10% in favor of the wife. The husband’s estate appealed, arguing the court improperly classified, valued, and allocated various property. In particular, the estate challenged the unequal allocation of the marital property. The Alaska Supreme Court held that, as a general matter, the superior court did not abuse its discretion in awarding a disproportionate share of the marital property to the wife in light of her greater needs. But because the superior court erred in classifying several items, the Supreme Court reversed or vacated some of its rulings and remanded for further proceedings. View "Aubert v. Wilson, f/k/a Aubert" on Justia Law

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Shirley Temple Carr Ralph ("Mrs. Ralph") executed a will naming Philip Kelsoe ("the proponent") the executor and sole beneficiary of her estate. estate. Mrs. Ralph's sister, Nel Brock, contested the will, arguing that Mrs. Ralph had lacked the mental capacity to execute the will and that the will was the product of undue influence on the part of the proponent. The Morgan Circuit Court entered a summary judgment in favor of the proponent, and Brock appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding the circumstances surrounding the timing of the execution of the will, the proponent's dominion over the will, and Dr. Campbell's testimony regarding Mrs. Ralph's deteriorating physical and mental state, a jury could have inferred the proponent was unduly active in the procurement of the will. Dr. Campbell testified that, around the time Mrs. Ralph executed the will, her health had deteriorated both mentally and physically, she was under the influence of "mind-altering" medications, and she was easily susceptible to being taken advantage of. Accordingly, Brock presented substantial evidence of all the elements necessary to submit her claim of undue influence to a jury. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Brock v. Kelsoe" on Justia Law