Mark E. Swirbalus, Esq., Day Pitney LLP
The T&E Litigation Update is a recurring column summarizing recent trusts and estates case law. If you have question about this update or about T&E litigation generally, please feel free to e-mail the author by clicking on his name above.
Furman v. Gossels
In Furman v. Gossels, Case No. 10-1603-BLS1, 2011 Mass. Super. LEXIS 84 (Super. Ct. May 24, 2011), the Superior Court addressed a business dispute that turned on the nature of the rights held by a beneficiary of a trust.
Siblings Elaine, Jerome and Walter were the members of a limited liability company, with each owning a one-third interest. The operating agreement of the LLC provides that only descendants of the siblings’ parents shall be members. The operating agreement also contains a restriction on the transfer of a membership interest, providing in part that a membership interest can be transferred only (1) to a descendant of the siblings’ parents or (2) to a trust in which all of the beneficial interests are owned by another member or a descendant and the trustee of which is a member. If a membership interest is transferred to an impermissible transferee, then the operating agreement gives the LLC the right to purchase that interest at a discounted price.
When Walter died in 2010, his membership interest passed through his estate to a family trust. Under the terms of the trust, his widow Miriam disclaimed her interest in the LLC and declined to act as trustee. The result of these actions was that Walter’s children, who (unlike Miriam) are descendants of the siblings’ parents, became the beneficiaries of Walter’s membership interest through the trust and Walter’s daughter Rebecca became the trustee.
The question presented in the litigation was whether Rebecca holds an ownership interest in the LLC and thus is a member, fulfilling the requirement that a membership interest can be transferred only to a trust of which a member is the trustee.
Elaine and Jerome argued that the trust is an impermissible transferee of Walter’s membership interest because Rebecca is not a member of the LLC. The Court disagreed, ruling that Rebecca and her siblings, as the beneficiaries of the trust, hold equitable interests in Walter’s membership interest and thus are the “real owners”. Accordingly, the trust is a permissible transferee because Rebecca, the trustee, is a member of the LLC.
The Court based its ruling on the following trust-law principles: “A trustee of a trust holds the legal title to trust property with the power to administer it for the benefit of the beneficiaries, in accordance with the terms of the trust instrument…. A beneficiary, on the other hand, is the owner of the trust res, has an equitable interest in the trust property, and is considered the real owner.”
Sherman v. Shub
In Sherman v. Shub, Case No. SUCV2007-BLS1, 2011 Mass. Super. LEXIS 146 (Suffolk Super. Ct. June 16, 2011), the Court entered summary judgment against the plaintiffs on their Chapter 93A claim against the defendant insurance advisers and attorneys relating to allegedly defective estate plans.
The plaintiffs purchased two life insurance policies that were to become assets of two irrevocable life insurance trusts. Some time later, the plaintiffs discovered defects in the trust instruments and related documents that could result in increased estate and gift tax liability in the future. The plaintiffs brought the Chapter 93A claim against the defendants for this potential liability.
The Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the plaintiffs’ alleged damages are too speculative to be actionable. The Court adopted the defendants’ argument that estate and gift taxes are subject to calculation only at the time of death, and that this calculation is subject to a number of variables (e.g., the value of the decedent’s estate; the nature and amount of any deductions, credits and exemptions that may be available in the estate; the state or jurisdiction in which the estate is located; the applicable federal and state estate tax laws in force at the time; the decedent’s marital status; and the identity of the beneficiaries of the estate). As the Court explained,
Here, even assuming that there are no changes in the [plaintiffs’] personal circumstances and the size of their estates at the time of their future deaths, the court can make no such assumptions with respect to the federal and state tax statutes that may be in effect. . . . [T]he court is not in a position to divine the future intent and/or actions of Congress or to make such a prognostication.
Cherubini v. Goodsell
In Cherubini v. Goodsell, Case No. 10-P-1245, 2011 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 827 (June 24, 2011), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court addressed the anti-lapse statute, G.L. c. 191, § 22, and its effect on purported assignments of interests in an estate.
Donald Goodsell predeceased Dominic Cherubini. One of Donald’s children, Edward Goodsell, argued that the portion of Dominic’s estate that would have passed to Donald should go directly to Edward rather than to all of Donald’s children by right of representation, because Donald’s other children had assigned their interests in Donald’s estate to Edward. The probate court disagreed, instructing the executor of Dominic’s estate to make distributions to all of Donald’s children by right of representation.
The Appeals Court affirmed, explaining that the anti-lapse statute operates to require the distribution of Donald’s share of Dominic’s estate directly to Donald’s surviving issue. In other words, Donald’s share would not pass through his estate, meaning that any assignment of interest in Donald’s estate would have no effect. The Appeals Court also rejected Edward’s argument that the assignment agreements were intended to include Donald’s share in Dominic’s estate, because Edward did not meet his high burden of proving mutual mistake, and found that the assignment agreements unambiguously pertained to Donald’s estate exclusively.
Austin v. Austin
In Austin v. Austin, Case No. 10-P-1342, Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 870 (July 7, 2011), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court affirmed summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s reformation claim and the defendant’s claim to enforce the in terrorem clause in the settlor’s will.
First, the plaintiff contended that the probate court had erred as a matter of law in granting summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s reformation claim because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the settlor, who was the parties’ mother, intended that her assets be equally distributed between them. Because a parcel of land transferred to the plaintiff through a QPRT resulted in the plaintiff paying more taxes than the defendant, the plaintiff claimed that the settlor’s intent was frustrated. The Appeals Court disagreed, holding there was no evidence that the settlor intended to treat her sons “equally”, and so reformation of the trust to conform with this alleged intent would have been inappropriate.
Second, the plaintiff contended that the in terrorem clause in the settlor’s will should not be enforced against his reformation claim because the claim did not challenge the will or the settlor’s revocable trust. He claimed that he only sought to revise the provisions of the QPRT, which was not covered by the in terrorem clause. Again, the Appeals Court disagreed, explaining that if the plaintiff’s QPRT taxes had been paid out of the settlor’s residuary estate, then reformation would have prevented Article Sixteenth of the will (the tax allocation provision) from being carried out in accordance with its terms, because that provision explicitly prohibits the residuary estate from paying the taxes of any trust other than the settlor’s revocable trust. Therefore, the Court held that the probate court had properly enforced the in terrorem clause against the plaintiff.
Paine v. Sullivan
In Paine v. Sullivan, Case No. 10-P-289, 2011 Mass. App. LEXIS 1042 (July 22, 2011), the probate court had ruled that the testator possessed testamentary capacity when he executed his last will and testament and that his will was not the product of undue influence. The Appeals Court reversed the probate court’s ruling on the testamentary capacity claim.
The Court explained that where there is evidence of lack of capacity, the presumption of sanity loses effect and the burden falls upon the proponent of the will to prove by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the testator was of sound mind when the instrument was executed. Here, the objector had offered evidence of lack of capacity, and thus the burden shifted to the proponent to prove capacity. The Court held that the proponent failed to meet this burden. The testimony of a medical expert was insufficient because, according to the Court, it was not clear that the medical expert’s opinion was supported by careful review of the testator’s medical records. The expert “cherry picked” portions of the medical records that could suggest the testator’s dementia was mild and ignored contrary medical records. Moreover, although the Court acknowledged that the testimony of a drafting attorney can be relevant, the drafting attorney was unable to offer any relevant evidence as to the testator’s capacity. He had not seen the testator in years, had spoken with him only by telephone, and was not aware that he had been diagnosed with dementia. Finally, the witnesses to the will, who were employees of the bank where the will was executed, could not recall the specifics of the execution.
McGeoghean v. McGeoghean
In McGeoghean v. McGeoghean, Case No. 10-P-407, 2011 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 936 (Aug. 3, 2011), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court affirmed the superior court’s judgment in all respects. The complicated facts of this case are not fully apparent from the decision, but the Court held that the superior court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law were not clearly erroneous. Two issues in particular bear noting.
First, the Appeals Court affirmed the superior court’s finding that the plaintiff John McGeoghean was entitled to quantum meruit damages in compensation for his actions in reliance on the oral promise of his mother, the decedent, to give him certain property and her interest in a business. The superior court did not specify whether the oral promise was one to make an inter vivos gift or a bequest in her will. Consequently, the Court held that the superior court, in awarding quantum meruit damages, had not impermissibly remade the dispositions in the will. Although a promise to include a bequest in a will is not enforceable under the Statute of Frauds, quantum meruit is an available remedy under these circumstances, and the superior court properly found that the plaintiff had rendered valuable services in reliance on his mother’s oral promise.
Second, the defendant argued that the plaintiff is judicially estopped from arguing promissory estoppel (i.e., reliance on the mother’s oral promise) because of a “Vaughan” affidavit filed by the mother in the plaintiff’s divorce action. In that affidavit, the mother had not mentioned a bequest of the property and her interest in the business to the plaintiff. Because the superior court had not found that the mother’s oral promise was one to make a bequest, however, judicial estoppel was not implicated. Moreover, even if the superior court had found that the oral promise was one to make a bequest, the Court held that the superior court would have been within its discretion in not applying judicial estoppel.