Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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At issue in this appeal was the status of a revocable trust that husband’s parents established in 1999. The parties married in 1984 and have two children (now adults); they divorced in 2014. The grantor amended the revocable trust that changed the beneficiary from husband to husband’s son, thereby keeping the trust property out of the marital estate and shielding it from wife’s claims. Wife appealed the family division’s final property division award. In particular, she challenged the trial court’s refusal to enforce a subpoena requiring grantor father to testify about the trust and his capacity to change its beneficiary and argued the family court should have included the trust assets as part of the marital estate. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Collins v. Collins" on Justia Law

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The Vermont Supreme Court rejected plaintiff’s request to extend an exception to the general rule to the circumstances of this case, which wanted to impose on attorneys a duty to prospective beneficiaries of undrafted, unexecuted wills. Doing so, in the Court’s view, would undermine the duty of loyalty that an attorney owes to his or her client and invite claims premised on speculation regarding the testator’s intent. Plaintiff filed a complaint against both defendant and his law firm alleging that defendant committed legal malpractice and consumer fraud, specifically alleging defendant breached a duty of care by failing to advise mother on matters of her estate and failing to draft a codicil reflecting her intent. The court granted defendants a partial motion to dismiss on the consumer fraud allegation. Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, adding another count of legal malpractice. This amended complaint alleged that defendant breached a duty owed to plaintiff to the extent that he could have successfully challenged mother’s will. According to plaintiff, he filed six affidavits from mother’s relatives, friends, and neighbors indicating that mother was committed to leaving a House she owned to plaintiff. Defendants again moved for summary judgment in which they argued that an attorney did not owe “a duty to a non-client prospective beneficiary of a nonexistent will or other estate planning document.” The trial court ruled there was no duty to beneficiaries of a client’s estate under Vermont law. The Supreme Court agreed. View "Strong v. Fitzpatrick" on Justia Law

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This case involved a revocable trust established by Virginia Newman. Her two sons, Roger and Frank Lamson, were both beneficiaries and trustees of the trust. Roger filed an action in the probate division alleging breach of trust by Frank. The court ruled in Roger’s favor on his claim arising from Frank’s personal use of Virginia’s vehicles. Frank appealed and the civil division granted Frank summary judgment on that claim. Roger filed this appeal, arguing that the civil division erred in concluding Frank did not violate his fiduciary obligation and in failing to award damages for Frank’s use of the vehicle. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Lamson v. Lamson" on Justia Law

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Paternal grandmother and paternal aunt appealed a decision by the probate court dismissing their petition for guardianship over N.P., and a decision declaring as moot their motion to transfer guardianship proceedings to the family court. The probate court dismissed the petition for appointment of guardian because it believed it “may not even consider a Petition for Appointment of Guardian” because the family division “has exclusive jurisdiction over the child.” The Supreme Court concluded that while the probate court was correct in asserting the general statement on jurisdiction, it failed to recognize the responsibilities imposed upon it when confronted with the petition for guardianship and the motion to transfer the cause to the family division. It failed to comply with the statutory procedures set forth in Title 14 designed to avoid judicial duplication and confusion and to assist in prompt resolution of child custody issues. The Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded the probate court for further proceedings. View "In re Guardianship of N.P." on Justia Law

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Testator Elaine A. Holbrook died on February 3, 2013. She was survived by six children, including appellant-executors David and Cheryl Holbrook, appellee Amy Holbrook, and seven grandchildren, including appellant-grandson Charles Holbrook III. Testator did not have a surviving spouse. Testator signed a three-page handwritten document entitled "My Last Will & Testament." The will was in the form of a letter and was addressed "To all my children." The main source of contention between testator’s children reads: "In the event that I don’t make it through surgery on Thurs the 23rd of Jan. ’03, I wish to bequeath you all of the property and personal belongings divided equally to the six of you & to the seven grandchildren." Testator did, in fact, survive the surgery in January 2003 and lived for ten more years before her death in 2013. In April 2013, appellee Amy Holbrook filed a motion with the probate court seeking clarification of the will. Appellant-executors responded with two motions questioning whether the will was properly allowed, raising issues concerning the will’s execution, ambiguity in its devise, notice to the grandchildren, and whether the will was “conditional” and therefore invalid. The question presented in this will contest was whether the trial court correctly determined on summary judgment that the testator intended her last will and testament which she executed on the eve of surgery to be absolute rather than contingent on her surviving the surgery. The Supreme Court concluded that summary judgment was premature in this case because material factual issues remained in dispute concerning the testator’s intent, and therefore reversed. View "In re Appeal of the Estate of Elaine A. Holbrook" on Justia Law

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Decedent Lyman Dezotell was killed in an automobile accident in November 2001. At the time of his death, decedent had been married for about eight months to Maria Dezotell. Decedent had met Maria online, traveled to Romania where she lived, spent about a month there, and ultimately married her in March 2001. Maria was pregnant with the couple’s first child when decedent was killed. The child, Roger Dezotell, was born in June 2002. Decedent had six daughters at the time of his death. Four were from an earlier marriage to Linda Bedard that ended in divorce: Renee, who was twenty years old; Beverly, who was nineteen, Sammie-Jo, then sixteen, and Nicole, who was fifteen. One daughter, Jennifer, then almost twenty-three, had been adopted. The sixth daughter, Melissan, then eight years old, was from a three-year relationship with Melissan’s mother that ended in 1994, when Melissan was one. Melissan later lived with her mother. Decedent enjoyed regular visits with Melissan on weekends, but provided little financial support. Based on decedent’s income from a fulltime job at IBM acquired about two years before his death, the trial court determined that decedent’s child support obligation for Melissan would have been $590 per month. The questions this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether, in distributing the proceeds of a wrongful-death settlement to the decedent’s spouse and children, the trial court was bound by the provisions of an earlier settlement distribution, and, if not, whether the court erred in curtailing an evidentiary hearing to divide the settlement in proportion to the pecuniary injuries suffered. The Supreme Court held that that the trial court correctly concluded that it was not bound by the prior order, but erred in limiting the evidentiary hearing. Accordingly, the judgment was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Estate of Dezotell" on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from a disagreement among siblings regarding the allowance, validity, and interpretation of the will of their mother, Elaine Holbrook. David and Cheryl Holbrook, two of the testator’s six children and co-executors of her estate, joined by Charles Holbrook III (grandson), one of testator’s seven grandchildren (collectively, appellants), appealed two Superior Court decisions in favor of appellee Amy Holbrook, testator’s daughter. On appellee’s motion, the civil division dismissed appellants’ claims that the probate division both improperly allowed the will and concluded that the will was not conditional. The civil division then granted summary judgment in favor of appellee on appellants’ remaining claim that the will was unambiguous in creating a thirteen-part devise, rather than a six-part devise. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed the civil division’s conclusions that the will was properly allowed and that it was unambiguous, but reversed and remanded on the issue of whether the will could be considered conditional. View "In re Appeal of the Estate of Elaine Holbrook" on Justia Law

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For over sixty years, the testator lived with her husband "Bill" Agan in the Town of Ludlow, where both were active in a variety of community organizations and activities. After Bill died, the testator placed her assets into trust. The original trust beneficiaries were the testator's brother, sisters, and the testator's niece and nephew. In 1996, the testator amended the trust to reduce the bequest to her brother (with whom she had a falling out), and to add bequests to three local community organizations: the Building Fund of the United Church of Ludlow, the Black River Academy Museum of Ludlow, and the Black River Valley Senior Center of Ludlow. A third trust amendment in May 2004 deleted the brother as a beneficiary. Additional trust amendments in December 2004, February 2005, and May 2005 variously altered the trustee, successor trustee, and trust account. Relatives and others who dealt with the testator during the period from 2004 to 2005, observed personality changes and signs of confusion. Her primary care physician diagnosed dementia in June 2004, and prescribed several medications in 2005 to help arrest the effects of dementia. In May 2005, the testator contacted an attorney to draft a number of additional changes to her trust. Less than a week after that contact, the testator's sister Patricia filed an involuntary guardianship petition, referencing the doctor's dementia diagnosis and recommending the appointment of a guardian. Following a hearing, Patricia withdrew her petition and the probate court granted the testator's petition, finding that the testator understood the nature and consequences of the requested voluntary guardianship. The testator died in May 2008. The estate at the time was worth in excess of eight million dollars. In April 2009, three members of the testator's family named as beneficiaries under a seventh amended trust, the testator's sister Joanne Curran, nephew Michael Curran, and niece Cathleen Curran (plaintiffs), filed a complaint for declaratory relief in superior court naming as defendants the nonprofit organizations receiving bequests under the trust. Plaintiffs sought a declaration that the testator lacked the capacity to execute the seventh trust amendment, and that the amendment was the product of undue influence and was invalid as a result. The court found sufficient evidence of "suspicious circumstances" to shift the burden of proof to defendants to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the seventh trust amendment was not the product of undue influence. 11. The jury returned a special verdict, finding that the testator had the capacity to execute the seventh trust amendment, and that it was not the product of undue influence. The court denied plaintiffs' subsequent motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial. This appeal followed. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Curran v. Building Fund of the United Church of Ludlow" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Thomas and Marie Baptie, administrators of the estate of their son, John Baptie, appealed a superior court's decision granting defendant and former police officer Aron McNeil, summary judgment dismissing their negligence case against him. Specifically, plaintiffs argued the officer was liable for the death of their son as the result of the negligent investigation of their complaint against defendant Jonathon Bruno, the man who murdered their son four days after they made a complaint. The Supreme Court agreed with the superior court's conclusions that defendant was entitled to qualified official immunity from plaintiffs' lawsuit and that, they could not prove all of the elements of their negligence or intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claims. View "Baptie v. Bruno" on Justia Law

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Appellant Joanne Fitzsimmons Balkam appealed the superior court's partial summary judgment decision that reversed a probate court decision that had granted her permission, as executor of her mother's estate, to physically partition and sell parts of a real estate property to make a division between the heirs of her mother's residual estate. The appellees were two of her brothers, Dennis and James Fitzsimmons. The issues raised in executor's appeal were whether the probate court had the power to allow the heirs to choose which property they received and whether the executor had the power to contract for a survey. Dennis and James raised five issues on appeal: the first two contested the probate court's ruling on their claim of waste and their claim that the accounting was flawed; the last three addressed the power of the executor and the probate court with respect to the distribution of the property: (1) whether executor had the power to subdivide the estate, (2) whether executor's proposed division met the requirement of the will that the estate be distributed into "as nearly equal shares as possible", and (3) whether the probate court's division was proper under its power to partition in 14 V.S.A. 1729. The superior court, in granting appellees' motion for partial summary judgment, and denying the motion for the license to sell real estate, disagreed with the probate court, and found that because legal title to real property passes to beneficiaries immediately upon the death of a testator, the executor had "limited ability to affect the beneficiaries' ownership of the real property" and could not partition the property. Whether or not by mistake, however, the Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not take up all the issues before it. Dennis and James filed a motion to reconsider the remand to the probate court, asking the superior court to deal with the remaining issues. Executor did not respond to that motion, but instead filed a notice of appeal to the Supreme Court requesting that it reverse the superior court's summary judgment order regarding executor's power to partition the property. While the Supreme Court held that the executor has the power to partition or sell the property to distribute to testator's children, it did not suggest that the power was unlimited. "The executor is bound by the requirement that the distribution shares be as equal as possible." The Court found the superior court erred in its reasoning on whether the executor had the power to subdivide. On remand, the Supreme Court mandated the trial court must move on to the fourth and fifth questions in light of executor's action pursuant to her distribution power. It must also answer the first and second questions. View "In re Estate of Fitzsimmons" on Justia Law