Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama
by
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

by
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

by
Theodore Branch, Jr., Denise Whisenhunt, Wanda Standfield, Yulonda Branch, Monique Branch, and Darin Branch appealed a circuit court order dismissing their action challenging their father's will based on a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Theodore W. Branch, Sr. ("the father"), died testate December 3, 2019, survived by his seven children: Angela Branch, Theodore Branch, Jr., Denise Whisenhunt, Wanda Standfield, Yulonda Branch, Monique Branch, and Darin Branch. Angela petitioned the probate court to probate a will that the father had executed on October 31, 2018. The will devised all of the father's property to Angela and omitted any reference to the father's other six children. On March 6, 2020, the omitted children filed a response to Angela's petition to probate the will in which they contested the validity of the will, asserting that the father had not been competent to execute the will and that Angela had exerted undue influence to procure the father's execution of the will and to obtain from the father the transfer of real property. The omitted children also asserted that a previous will executed by the father in 2017 better reflected his final wishes. The Alabama Supreme Court found the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to consider the omitted children's action because they did not strictly comply with statutory prerequisites to invoke that court's jurisdiction. Therefore, the circuit court correctly dismissed the action. View "Branch, et al. v. Branch" on Justia Law

by
Two appeals arose from a dispute between four siblings about the management of trusts set up by their parents. The siblings -- Lenn Rainwater ("Lenn"), Charles Edward Rainwater ("Charles"), Jean Rainwater Loggins, and Mary Rainwater Breazeale -- executed a settlement agreement resolving their dispute. In appeal no. 1190952, the parties petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court to consider whether that agreement should have been declared void. Lenn also sought to garnish trust assets that she says were hers. In appeal no. 1190951, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether those garnishment proceedings should have been quashed. The Court ultimately did not reach either of those issues because both appeals should been dismissed: appeal no. 1190952 was filed too late and appeal no. 1190951 was filed too soon. View "Lem Harris Rainwater Family Trust et al. v. Rainwater" on Justia Law

by
Damon Stephens appealed a circuit court order ordering that certain property located on Old Railroad Bed Road in Toney, ("the property"), be partitioned by sale, pursuant to the Alabama Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act ("the Heirs Act"). In September 2017, Michael Claridy filed a complaint to quiet title to the property and requested that the circuit court partition the property by sale on the basis that the property could not be equitably divided or partitioned in kind. Stephens acquired his interest in the property in 2019; he has neither lived on the property nor paid taxes on the property. Stephens stated that he had lived on the property and made improvements to some of the buildings there. Following an initial hearing, the circuit court determined that the property was heirs property governed by the Heirs Act. Based on the testimony, the evidentiary materials, and the judge's personal observation of the property, the circuit court concluded that there was no method by which the property could be partitioned in kind to adequately preserve each cotenant's interest in the property. Accordingly, the circuit court entered a detailed judgment ordering that the property be partitioned by sale via public auction. Stephens contended the circuit court erred by ordering a partition by sale because, he contended, the court considered only one factor in its analysis, provided no discussion of the other factors, and provided no analysis regarding whether any particular cotenant would be greatly prejudiced by a partition in kind. Finding no reversible error, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's order. View "Stephens v. Claridy" on Justia Law

by
These consolidated appeals involved the Frederick Tildon Skelton, Jr., Family Trust ("the trust") and its primary asset, shares of stock in South Haven Corporation ("South Haven"). In appeal no. 1190700, Frederick Tildon Skelton IV and Brian Rutledge Skelton challenged the May 4, 2020 probate court judgment terminating the trust. In appeal no. 1190917, those same parties challenged the July 17, 2020 circuit court judgment dismissing their claims relating to the administration of the trust and their derivative claims asserted on behalf of South Haven. After Mrs. Skelton died, Brian Lee, who was serving as South Haven's president at the time, became the successor trustee of the trust. However, Brian Lee died in July 2016, before fully discharging his duties as trustee by dividing the trust property and making a final distribution of the trust corpus to the remainder beneficiaries of the trust. Brian Lee's widow, Evangela Taylor Skelton ("Angel"), was appointed as the personal representative of Brian Lee's estate. After Brian Lee's death, there was no acting trustee, but it was undisputed that the remainder beneficiaries of the trust were: Brian Lee's estate, Joshua, the nephews, and Loree (referred to collectively as "the beneficiaries"). In September 2016, Loree, individually and on behalf of South Haven, commenced an action in the circuit court against Angel, individually and in her capacity as the personal representative of Brian Lee's estate ("the circuit-court action"). In that action, Loree alleged that Brian Lee, while an officer, director, and shareholder of South Haven, and Angel had misappropriated South Haven's assets for their personal benefit to the detriment of the other shareholders or putative shareholders of the corporation. The nephews filed a motion to intervene in the circuit-court action to assert claims on behalf of South Haven against Loree and Angel; the nephews asserted that both Brian and Loree misappropriated South Haven's assets for their personal benefit to the detriment of the other shareholders or putative shareholders of the corporation. Following mediation, Loree, Joshua, and Angel, individually and as personal representative of Brian Lee's estate, reached a proposed settlement. The nephews opposed that settlement, however; thus, it was never finalized. In November 2017, the nephews, as beneficiaries of the trust, filed a petition in the probate-court action, asserting various claims and counterclaims and seeking affirmative relief relating to the administration of the trust. The Alabama Supreme Court found the probate court was justified in terminating the trust and the circuit court was the appropriate venue to litigate all remaining claims, including the nephews' trust claims. View "Skelton v. Skelton" on Justia Law

by
A series of appeals arose from a will-contest dispute between siblings. After their mother died, William C. Harper and Alice Lynn Harper Taylor disagreed about which version of their mother's will governed the disposition of her assets. After a purported transfer of the will contests from probate court to circuit court, the siblings submitted their dispute to a jury, which returned a verdict for Alice Lynn. William appealed and Alice Lynn cross-appealed. Because jurisdiction never properly vested in the circuit court, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed these appeals. View "Harper-Taylor. v. Harper." on Justia Law

by
Consolidated appeals involved a dispute between Cortney Brooks and her brother Chad Svenby about the administration of the estate of their deceased mother Dorothy Clare. In appeal no. 1190405, Brooks challenged a circuit court order removing the original administrator of the estate. After the circuit court appointed Svenby to be the executor of the estate and granted his motion to enter a final settlement, Brooks filed appeal no. 1191037 contesting that settlement. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded Brooks established the circuit court erred: (1) by removing Colley as the administrator of Clare's estate; and (2) by entering an order approving a final settlement of Clare's estate. Accordingly, the circuit court was directed on remand to vacate those orders and to reinstall Colley as the duly appointed administrator with the will annexed of Clare's estate. View "Brooks v. Svenby" on Justia Law

by
Ann Langford appealed a trial court judgment in favor of Harriett Broussard regarding the administration of an estate and the sale and division of real property. Mary Walker Taylor died in January 1998 leaving a will that appointed two of her daughters, Ann and Harriett, as coexecutors. The coexecutors petitioned to have the will admitted to probate. The sisters filed a waiver of notice in which they each accepted service of notice of the filing of the petition for the probate of the will and waived further notice of the proceedings. The record reflected no other action was taken in the probate court with respect to the administration of the estate. In October 2017, Harriett petitioned to, among other things, remove the administration of the estate from the probate court to the trial court. In her petition, Harriett sought either the sale for division of certain real property or, if the trial court determined that any of the real property was "heirs property," the partition by sale. The trial court granted Harriett’s request, removing the administration of the estate from the probate court and allowing the sale. Ann responded to Harriett’s petition denying the real property could not be equitably partitioned, and asserted the real property could not be sold or divided. Finding, however, that the trial court did not err with respect to the sale and division of the estate property, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed judgment. View "Langford v. Broussard" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff Jeremy K. Hon appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants Kevin Duane Hon, individually and as trustee of the Jeremy K. Hon Irrevocable Family Trust ("the Trust"), Emily Louise Hon Castellanos, and Jason Jeremy Hon. Jeremy K. Hon and Lynda L.B. Hon were married and had three children -- Kevin Duane Hon, Emily Louise Hon Castellanos, and Jason Jeremy Hon. In 2012, plaintiff signed an agreement creating the Trust. Over time, plaintiff transferred assets to the Trust, including his and Lynda's principal Alabama residence; a condominium in New York; his 50% interest in L&L Enterprises LLC; and over $1,000,000 in cash and securities. Lynda died in 2017, and Kevin succeeded her as the sole trustee of the Trust. In 2018, plaintiff filed a complaint against Kevin, individually and as trustee of the Trust, Emily, and Jason seeking rescission of the Trust agreement. Plaintiff alleged he had signed the Trust agreement based on "his mistaken understanding of the effects thereof"; that he had "transferred assets to the Trust based on his mistaken understanding of the effects of the Trust Agreement"; and that, "due to mistake, the Trust Agreement does not accomplish his intent." He also alleged that he had paid amounts on behalf of the Trust that "the Trust, in equity and good conscience, should be required to repay" to him and that the Trust "has received and retained an improper benefit ... and has been unjustly enriched." The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed, finding plaintiff did not present any evidence to establish that Lynda had engaged in any fraudulent or inequitable conduct that resulted in his alleged misunderstanding, and he did not present any evidence indicating that Lynda had been aware of his alleged misunderstanding. Also, the plaintiff did not present substantial evidence to establish that the mistake was not mixed with his own negligence. “Rather, by his own testimony, the plaintiff admitted that he did not read the Trust agreement before he signed it; that he might have skimmed the Trust agreement; that he did not ask Burwell any questions about the provisions of the Trust; and that he instead relied on comments made by his business partner about the effects of his own separate trust.” View "Hon v. The Jeremy K. Hon Irrevocable Family Trust, et al." on Justia Law