Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Alabama
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Irvin Shell, as administrator of the estate of Annie Ruth Peterson, deceased ("the estate"), appealed separate summary judgments entered in favor of Montgomery-municipal jail employees Terri Butcher and Shayla Payne, respectively, on the basis of State-agent immunity. Annie Peterson was arrested for driving under the influence "of any substance" and transported to the municipal jail. Peterson was not actually under the influence of an intoxicating substance at the time of her arrest; rather, she was suffering from a hemorrhagic stroke. She remained in jail overnight; when jail officers went to retrieve Peterson from her cell, she was weak, “drowsy” and appeared ill. This information was relayed to a jail nurse; the nurse in turn contacted a doctor, who instructed jail staff to transport Peterson to the emergency room. After the bonding process was complete, Peterson was released to a family member who transported Peterson to a local hospital where she was diagnosed with having suffered a stroke; she died three days later on April 16, 2013. The estate sued Butcher and Payne in their individual capacities, alleging that they had been negligent and wanton in failing to obtain medical care for Peterson in a timely manner. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the estate did not demonstrate the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of Butcher and Payne based on State-agent immunity. Accordingly, the trial court’s judgments were affirmed. View "Shell v. Butcher" on Justia Law

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Susan Turner appealed a probate court judgment admitting the will of Johnny B. Turner to probate and granting letters testamentary to Lana Rogers. Susan argued the probate court violated the "clearly mandatory language of Sections 43-8-190 and 43-8-198" when it did not transfer her will contest, which was commenced before the will was admitted to probate, to the circuit court. The Alabama Supreme Court found the probate court had no authority to do anything other than timely refer the contest to the circuit court once the contest was filed. The probate court’s judgment was vacated and the appeal dismissed. View "Turner v. Estate of Johnny B. Turner" on Justia Law

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This case involved a wrongful-death claim filed by Michael Rondini ("Rondini"), as personal representative of the estate of Megan Rondini ("Megan"), to recover damages for the death of his daughter Megan, who committed suicide almost eight months after she was allegedly sexually assaulted while enrolled as a student at the University of Alabama. Rondini sued Megan's alleged assailant, Terry Bunn, Jr., in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division, claiming that Bunn's alleged sexual assault and false imprisonment of Megan proximately caused her death. After Bunn moved for summary judgment, the federal court certified a question to the Alabama Supreme Court on whether Rondini's wrongful-death claim was viable under Alabama law. Both Rondini and Bunn framed their arguments around the Alabama Supreme Court's decision in Gilmore v. Shell Oil Co., 613 So. 2d 1272 (Ala. 1993). The Alabama Supreme Court responded by stating suicide would not, as a matter of law, absolve an alleged assailant of liability. “The statement in Gilmore that suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law, was made in the context of a negligence case and does not apply in an intentional-tort case involving an allegation of sexual assault. … traditional negligence concepts like foreseeability and proximate cause, which form the backbone of the negligence analysis in Gilmore, have a more limited application in intentional-tort cases.” The Court held that a wrongful-death action could be pursued against a defendant when there is substantial evidence both that defendant sexually assaulted the decedent and that the assault was a cause in fact of the decedent's later suicide. “In such cases, it is unnecessary to analyze whether the decedent's suicide was a foreseeable consequence of the sexual assault; liability may attach without regard to whether the defendant intended or could have reasonably foreseen that result.” View "Rondini v. Bunn" on Justia Law

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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