Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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The estate of a severely disabled woman sued her in-home care providers for negligence in causing her death. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the providers, ruling that the estate was required to support its negligence claim with expert testimony, and failed to do so. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court held that the estate was not required to present expert testimony to establish a breach of the duty of care because the estate’s theory of fault was one of ordinary negligence that did not turn on the exercise of professional skill or judgment. “The estate’s theory of causation, by contrast, is complex and must be supported by the opinion of a medical expert. But the treating physician’s deposition testimony is sufficient evidence of causation to survive summary judgment.” The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings. View "Culliton v. Hope Community Resources, Inc." on Justia Law

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Nora D. was an 82-year-old woman residing in an assisted living facility. She suffered a stroke in April 2016, and she reportedly continued to suffer resulting physical and mental limitations. In 2017 Nora gave her son, Cliff, a general power of attorney. In 2018 Adult Protective Services petitioned for a conservatorship to protect Nora’s finances and property after the office received reports of harm alleging that Cliff had made decisions not in Nora’s best interests. The Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) was appointed as Nora’s conservator in 2018. In September 2019 Nora’s daughter Naomi petitioned for a full guardianship for Nora. Naomi alleged that a guardianship was necessary because Nora was unable to attend to her own physical needs and Cliff was unable to care for Nora. A day later Naomi’s son Kevin petitioned for review of the conservatorship, and sought appointment as Nora’s guardian, which could replace OPA’s conservatorship. The superior court ordered a Nora attend a psychiatric evaluation and answer all questions posed to her by Kevin’s retained expert. But the guardianship statute provided that a respondent may refuse to answer questions during examinations and evaluations. The only exception to that statute applied in an interview to determine whether the respondent has capacity to make informed decisions about care and treatment services. The Alaska Supreme Court granted the Nora’s petition for review to consider the scope of the statute’s protection, and the Supreme Court concluded that Nora could refuse to answer any questions other than those directed at determining her capacity to make personal medical decisions. The Supreme Court therefore vacated the superior court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. View "In the Matter of the Protective Proceeings of Nora D." on Justia Law

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Two defendants in a wrongful death suit settled with the decedent’s estate, resulting in a recovery for her minor child’s benefit. The estate’s attorney received payment from the settlement, but the remaining funds were reserved against potential fee awards to the remaining defendants should they prevail in the ongoing litigation. The estate appealed, arguing the remainder of the funds should have been immediately disbursed for the child’s benefit. The non-settling defendants cross-appealed, arguing that the entire settlement fund should have been reserved for their recoverable costs and fees. Because the prevailing defendants would have no other source from which to recover expenses, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s reservation of settlement funds. But because the Supreme Court construed the common fund doctrine to apply, it also affirmed the court’s distribution of the estate’s attorney’s fees and costs. View "Doan v. Banner Health Inc., et al." 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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Jerry Hatten lived with Beverly Toland for 20 years. He died intestate. Hatten had named Toland as the sole beneficiary to his individual retirement account, but did not provide for her to inherit any of his other assets. She sought a larger share of his estate, arguing: (1) Hatten promised to support her financially if she moved to Alaska to live with him; and (2) the court should divide Hatten's property according to their intent because she and Hatten were domestic partners. A special master recommended rejecting Toland's claims, and the superior court adopted the master's recommendation. Finding no reversible error in that decision, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "In the Matter of the Estate of Jerry Hatten" on Justia Law

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Two sisters were beneficiaries of their late parents trusts: one was trustee of the trusts and president of the family corporation; the other sister was a shareholder of the family corporation. The latter sister disputed proposed trust distributions and various aspects of the family corporation; she and her children sued the trustee for breach of fiduciary duty in both trustee and corporate capacities. The litigation resulted in two appeals, which the Alaska Supreme Court consolidated for oral argument and decision. After review, the Court largely affirmed the superior court s decisions because they were discretionary and, under the applicable standard of review, the Court could not say they were unreasonable given the court s factual findings; but the matters were remanded for reconsideration of certain trust property valuations, which may have required minor distribution adjustments. View "Bjorn-Roli v. Mulligan" on Justia Law

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Following mediation, a trust beneficiary and a trustee signed a document purporting to settle a bitter family litigation and referring future disputes to the mediator for resolution. The beneficiary subsequently denied that she settled and asked the mediator to resolve the issue, but the mediator concluded that the parties had reached a binding settlement. The beneficiary tried to resurrect this issue in the superior court, but the court concluded that the mediator’s decision was within the scope of the authority conferred by the parties. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err by confirming the mediator’s decision. Furthermore, the court did not err by denying the beneficiary’s petition to review the trustee’s compensation, or by awarding Alaska Civil Rule 82 attorney’s fees to the trustee. View "Lee v. Sheldon" on Justia Law

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A man asserted in a probate proceeding that he was the decedent’s son and requested a paternity determination. The personal representative opposed the request, arguing that a paternity determination could not be made in a probate proceeding and that this particular paternity determination was barred by a statute of limitations. The superior court agreed that probate proceedings were not appropriate for paternity determinations and rejected the man’s request, but it did not rule on the statute of limitations issue. The court later determined that the man was not an interested person to the probate proceeding and barred him from further participation. On appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court disagreed a probate hearing was not appropriate for a paternity determination, and a request for one during a probate proceeding was not barred by any statute of limitations. Therefore, the Court reversed the probate court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Estate of Seward" on Justia Law

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A former agent appointed under a power of attorney, successfully defended an accounting of his actions, expenditures, and fees against objections and counterclaims by his former principal. At issue in this appeal was whether the former agent was entitled to reimbursement from his former principal for reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in maintaining that defense. The superior court denied the agent’s request for attorney’s fees because the dispute occurred in the context of a guardianship proceeding and because the request did not meet the requirements of AS 13.26.291, which governed cost-shifting in guardianship proceedings. The agent appealed, arguing: (1) AS 13.26.291 did not apply; (2) that he was entitled to attorney’s fees based on his authority as an agent to hire an attorney under AS 13.26.665(m); and (3) he was entitled to attorney’s fees based on common law principles, equity, and considerations of public policy. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded neither statute applied, but that the agent could be entitled to reimbursement of his attorney’s fees under the common law of agency and as a matter of equity. The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Cottini v. Berggren" on Justia Law

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A former agent appointed under a power of attorney, successfully defended an accounting of his actions, expenditures, and fees against objections and counterclaims by his former principal. At issue in this appeal was whether the former agent was entitled to reimbursement from his former principal for reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in maintaining that defense. The superior court denied the agent’s request for attorney’s fees because the dispute occurred in the context of a guardianship proceeding and because the request did not meet the requirements of AS 13.26.291, which governed cost-shifting in guardianship proceedings. The agent appealed, arguing: (1) AS 13.26.291 did not apply; (2) that he was entitled to attorney’s fees based on his authority as an agent to hire an attorney under AS 13.26.665(m); and (3) he was entitled to attorney’s fees based on common law principles, equity, and considerations of public policy. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded neither statute applied, but that the agent could be entitled to reimbursement of his attorney’s fees under the common law of agency and as a matter of equity. The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Cottini v. Berggren" on Justia Law