Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama
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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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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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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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Zambia Player appealed two circuit court orders issued in regard to her administration of the estate of her brother, Jabari Player. Jabari died intestate in 2013, leaving as his sole heir at law his 14-year-old daughter J.C. In 2017, Zambia filed a "Petition for Letters of Administration," and, after posting a bond, she was appointed administratrix of Jabari's estate. Zambia filed an "Inventory of the Estate of Jabari Player," which showed the value of Jabari's estate to be $20,862. J.C. protested this inventory through counsel. For reasons that were not clear, a guardian ad litem was not appointed on J.C.'s behalf until four years later. For several years Zambia did nothing to close the estate or to surrender the property in the estate to J.C. Through her guardian ad litem, J.C. filed a petition to remove the estate to the Etowah Circuit Court. Following the removal of the estate, J.C. moved to compel an accounting. Zambia failed to comply with the accounting order; thereafter, J.C. moved to remove Zambia as personal representative of the estate. In response, Zambia filed a “petition for final settlement” of the estate. The circuit court still insisted on a “formal accounting.” At the hearing on J.C.’s motion to remove Zambia, Zambia appeared pro se and testified concerning her administration of the estate. Zambia essentially testified that she had relied upon her former attorney for all of her actions and that she did not mean to mismanage the estate, but Zambia essentially admitted that she had commingled estate funds and property with her personal accounts and property. The following day, the circuit court entered an order that, among other things, removed Zambia as personal representative of the estate, and it denied Zambia's petition for approval of her final accounting. The Supreme Court determined Zambia's appeal of the order removing her as personal representative of Jabari's estate was not timely; therefore that part of Zambia's appeal was not properly before the Supreme Court and was dismissed. Zambia also did not demonstrate that the circuit court erred in its order assessing damages against her for malfeasance in administering the estate. Therefore, that order was affirmed. View "Player v. J. C." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Helene Hoehn Taylor, appealed a trial court's judgment on partial findings in favor of defendant Margaret Hoehn. John Alphonse Hoehn ("Hoehn") died on or about October 17, 2014. He was survived by his wife, Margaret, and four daughters: Helene Taylor, Barbara Roberts, Ann Self, and Roman Fitzpatrick. In 2015, Helene filed a petition requesting that a will of Hoehn's that was dated June 7, 2005, be admitted to probate and that letters testamentary be issued to her. She attached to the petition an unsigned copy of a the purported will, stated that she believed that Margaret had the original signed will in her possession, and requested that the probate court enter an order requiring Margaret to produce the signed will so it could be properly probated. Margaret ultimately moved to dismiss Helene's petition, alleging Hoehn had died intestate. Helene sought to compel Margaret to produce Hoehn's executed will. In response, Margaret asserted she had been married to Hoehn for 46 1⁄2 years and that she was not aware of any will that he had executed. She moved again for Helene's petition be dismissed. Helene attempted to probate a lost will. The circuit court dismissed the daughters' attempt to intervene. At a bench trial, Roman testified she was present when her father signed the will at issue; she also produced a signed copy of a revocable trust agreement, wherein the trust would be funded by the terms of the will. An attorney who drafted the will and trust agreement also testified; his office did not have an executed copy of Hoehn's will or the trust agreement. Further, the attorney testified that "knowing what [he] knew about the family and the potential for subsequent litigation, it would have been unusual for [him] to have Roman or anybody else sitting right there" while the Hoehns signed the documents. The attorney testified Hoehn asked the attorney to revoke the power of attorney and any other writing he had made which purported to gift anything of value to Roman or Helene. Margaret moved for judgment on partial findings at the close of Helene's case. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed judgment in favor of Margaret, finding the circuit court could have reasonably concluded that Helene did not establish that Hoehn ever properly executed the purportedly lost will, and could have reasonably concluded that, even if Hoehn had signed the will, that will had been revoked. View "Taylor v. Hoehn" on Justia Law

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Defendant Beulah Jean James Moore ("Beulah") appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of plaintiff Billy Edward Moore ("Billy"), individually and as executor of the estate of his brother and Beulah's husband, Jimmy Lee Moore ("Jimmy"), in an action filed by Billy seeking the enforcement of a prenuptial agreement. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded summary judgment was appropriate. Beulah argued that language in the prenup discussing "spousal consents or waivers" granted her the proceeds of Jimmy's 401(k) plan and the pension plan unless a spousal waiver was executed . However, the Court found agreement made clear that Jimmy and Beulah agreed that the separate property each brought into the marriage--including the 401(k) plan and the pension plan--would remain separate. Jimmy and Beulah further agreed that neither of them would "claim, demand, assert any right to, take or receive any part of the property of the other as described on Schedules 1 and 2," which included the 401(k) plan and the pension plan. The second clause of section 4.4 allowed the owner of "an IRA or other plan account" to "direct" the "distribution of benefits" to one through a "beneficiary designation." Under this clause, Jimmy was permitted to name Billy as the designated beneficiary of the 401(k) plan and the pension plan, which he had done before he married Beulah, who had, in turn, renounced her claim to the plans. "Nothing in section 4.4 suggests that the failure to execute a spousal consent or waiver changes the parties' clear intent throughout the entire prenuptial agreement to renounce claims to the other's property; instead, the purpose of the requirement is to ensure that the parties' desires to retain control over the distribution of their accounts through a beneficiary designation is accomplished." Under those circumstances, Beulah breached the prenuptial agreement by retaining the benefits from the 401(k) plan and the pension plan. Thus, the trial court properly entered a summary judgment in favor of Billy. View "Moore v. Estate of Moore" on Justia Law

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Regina Norwood and Rita Patelliro appealed a probate court order. Josephine Mary Damico ("the testator") executed a will, devising the entirety of her estate to her sister, Sarah Frances Cox. The testator expressly disinherited all of her other heirs. When the testator died in 2017, Elise Barclay filed a petition for probate of the will and a petition for letters testamentary. Shortly thereafter, Norwood and Patelliro, the testator's nieces, filed a "motion for letters of instruction" in which they asserted that the sister had predeceased the testator, they were the sister's two surviving children, and that, as the sister's surviving children, they were entitled to receive the testator's estate in place of the sister pursuant to the antilapse statute. The personal representative filed a response in which she asserted that the testator's estate should pass through intestacy. The Alabama Supreme Court found that although the testator expressly disinherited all of her heirs with the exception of the sister, her will was executed while the sister was living. The testator could foresee that, if she devised the entirety of her estate to her sister, the sister could thereafter devise it, upon her death, to her own issue, the nieces. "Moreover, the testator could foresee that, if her sister predeceased her, as happened, the nieces would inherit the sister's share pursuant to the antilapse statute. If the testator wanted to prevent the nieces from inheriting her estate, she could have included language in her will preventing the application of the antilapse statute. The testator gave no indication in her will that the antilapse statute should not apply." Thus, the Court determined the antilapse statute applied in this case and the nieces were entitled to take the sister's share of the testator's estate. View "Norwood v. Barclay" on Justia Law

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Donald Croom Beatty, Jr., appealed a circuit court judgment dismissing an action involving the estate of his mother, Mary Alice Gatlin Beatty. The Alabama Supreme Court determined Donald's notice of appeal was untimely filed; therefore it did not invoke the Supreme Court's jurisdiction to consider the issues he raised on appeal. Accordingly, the Court dismissed his appeal. View "Beatty v. Carmichael" on Justia Law

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This case was an estate-administration case that was only partially before the Alabama Supreme Court. Perry Eugene Cox, Jr. ("Cox"), appealed a judgment made final by the Shelby Circuit Court ("the trial court") under Rule 54(b), Ala. R. Civ. P. Specifically, the trial court held that Cox's counterclaim against his sisters, Jennie Jo Cox Parrish, Debra Cox McCurdy, and Shirley Cox Wise, as coexecutors of the estate of their father, Perry Eugene Cox, Sr., was time-barred by Alabama's nonclaims statute, 43-2-350, Ala. Code 1975. The trial court dismissed Cox's counterclaim and certified its judgment as final and appealable, and Cox appealed. Because the trial court exceeded its discretion in certifying its dismissal of Cox's counterclaim under Rule 54(b), the Supreme Court determined no final judgment existed and the Court lacked jurisdiction to decide this appeal. Accordingly, the appeal was dismissed. View "Cox, Jr. v. Parrish" on Justia Law

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This case contested the validity of a property deed that was executed by Gayron Brooks in the weeks before her death from lung cancer. The deed conveyed her house in Boaz to her husband of 18 years, David. Following Gayron's death, her adult children, Teresa Elizabeth Mitchell and Steve E. Allen, as personal representatives of Gayron's estate, sued David alleging, among other things, that David held a dominant position over Gayron and that he had unduly influenced her to sign the deed. After a four-day nonjury trial, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of David. This appeal followed. Finding no reversible error in the circuit court's judgment, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. View "Mitchell v. Brooks" on Justia Law