Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates

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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

Posted in: Trusts & Estates

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The estate of husband, William E. Simendinger, appealed an injunction order by the Superior Court that encumbered all real property held by the estate. Husband's estate also challenged the family court's award of attorney's fees. Wife Connie Simendinger and husband were married in 1987. They divorced in 2014. The final order and decree of divorce incorporated a stipulation between the parties, which provided in pertinent part that in lieu of alimony, the husband shall pay to the wife the sum of $2,250,000 ($50,000 within 30 days and the balance of $2,200,000 in one year). This amount was secured by real estate, and had been owned solely by the husband, free and clear of all mortgages. Wife received the $50,000, but husband did not subsequently pay the $2.2 million balance or secure the unpaid amount in real estate. After the thirty-day deadline passed, wife filed a motion for contempt and enforcement, as well as a motion for attorney's fees. The family court set a hearing date for August 2014 to determine how best to proceed. The decree nisi became absolute on May 3, 2014. Then husband died unexpectedly on July 14. His estate was substituted as party. The family court denied the contempt motion, and enjoined the estate from disposing or otherwise encumbering any real estate that might be subject to the divorce decree stipulation. On appeal, husband's estate argued that the family court abused its discretion by: (1) issuing an injunction against husband's estate absent a hearing to show that husband had violated a court order; (2) including certain "business properties" within the scope of the injunction; and (3) awarding attorney's fees to wife without first clearly establishing a factual basis to support an award of attorney's fees. Upon review of the family court record, the Supreme Court found no reversible error, and affirmed. View "Simendinger v. Simendinger" on Justia Law

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Virginia Newman died in early 2014 at the age of ninety-eight. She created a trust in the mid-1980s after the death of her third husband. Initially, she was the sole trustee, but in 1989 she resigned, and her son Roger Lamson, Jr. was appointed sole trustee. From 1992 until 2001, Roger served as co-trustee, with Virginia and Bank of Boston. In 2001, Roger was removed as co-trustee. In 2003, the trust was amended, with Virginia, Roger, son Frank Lamson, and Bank of America serving as co-trustees. In January 2012, Roger filed a petition for accounting because he was suspicious that Frank had been using trust funds for his own benefit. In July, Roger filed a complaint for breach of trust against Frank. In February 2013, Frank petitioned to remove Roger as co-trustee of the trust. The probate division issued an order that: (1) removed Roger as co-trustee; (2) accepted Frank's resignation as co-trustee; (3) removed Virginia as co-trustee based on its contemporaneous order appointing a guardian for her; (4) accepted Bank of America's resignation as trustee; and (5) appointed Trust Company of Vermont (TCV) as sole trustee in accordance with TCV's conditions that Roger and Frank be removed as co-trustees, that neither of them have a power of attorney over Virginia's financial affairs, that TCV not be responsible for any acts or omissions of any predecessor trustee, and that TCV not have any duty to inquire into the administration or accounting of any predecessor trustee. Roger appealed the order to the civil division. The probate division lifted the automatic stay of its decision removing Roger as co-trustee, thereby making his removal effective immediately. The following day, Roger appealed the decision to lift the stay. The civil division ordered the completion of discovery in the trust case, and ruled that Roger's appeal of the probate division's order lifting the stay did not serve to create a new stay but provided Roger the opportunity to request a hearing on whether the automatic stay should have been reinstated. Meanwhile, in the breach-of-trust case that remained with the probate division, Roger obtained access to the last of the trust accounts and had an accountant prepare a report. In August 2013, Frank moved to either substitute Virginia's guardian as the petitioner or dismiss the case based on Roger's lack of standing. The probate division ruled that: (1) the issue of Roger's standing with respect to his petition for an accounting was moot because he had obtained all of the information necessary for an accounting; (2) Roger, as a former co-trustee and a remainder beneficiary to a revocable trust, had no standing to pursue his breach-of-trust action; (3) Virginia's guardian, Beth Barrett, was authorized to pursue the pending breach-of-trust action; and (4) that action would be dismissed if the guardian did not substitute herself as the petitioner in the action within the next thirty days. In so ruling, the probate division noted that Roger had "essentially conceded" that he did not have standing to pursue the breach-of-trust action. On appeal of the civil division's decision to the Supreme Court, Roger argued the court erred in granting Frank summary judgment based on Roger's lack of standing because: (1) the civil division had to resolve his appeal of the probate division's decision to remove him as co-trustee before finding that he lacked standing to pursue the breach-of-trust action; (2) its decision impaired his ability as co-trustee to fulfill his duties to safeguard the trust; and (3) he was not afforded an adequate opportunity to conduct discovery. The Supreme Court affirmed, "notwithstanding Roger's protestations to the contrary, his appeal is moot. 'A case becomes moot if the issues presented are no longer live or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome. A case that originally presented an actual controversy may become moot if the facts or circumstances of the case change such that we can no longer grant effective relief.' That is what occurred here. When Virginia died, the parties agreed that Roger could pursue, as a beneficiary, his breach-of-trust action against Frank and that is what he is doing in a separate case." View "In re Trust of Virginia B. Newman" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates

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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

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Defendant Douglas Tuthill, Administrator of the Estate of Paul Oakes, appealed a jury's award of $150,000 in punitive damages to plaintiff Doreen Carpentier and the trial court's denial of his motion for remittitur. Defendant also challenged the trial court's denial of his post-judgment motion to vacate a writ of attachment. Paul Oakes was charged with numerous crimes based on acts alleged to have occurred at plaintiff's home. Oakes killed himself shortly before his arraignment on these charges. Following Oakes's death, plaintiff sued his estate, raising claims of assault and battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She sought compensatory and punitive damages. Plaintiff also requested a writ of attachment against certain real property owned by Oakes. Finding none of defendant's arguments persuasive, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Carpentier v. Tuthill" on Justia Law

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The Probate Court appointed Theodore Ballard's niece, Leala Bell, as Ballard's guardian. Bell signed a promissory note to a mortgage as a "borrower"; she did not expressly indicate that she was signing as Ballard's guardian or that her signature indicated only her "approval" of Ballard's action. The loan was secured by a mortgage on Ballard's real property. The mortgage deed granted and conveyed Ballard's property to CitiFinancial, including the power to sell the property. Ballard signed the mortgage deed but Bell did not. There was no showing that the probate court licensed the mortgage. CitiFinancial alleged that Ballard had failed to make the payments called for under the note and mortgage, and therefore breached these agreements. Ballard moved for summary judgment, arguing in relevant part that he lacked the legal capacity to execute a mortgage deed and promissory note while he was under guardianship. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that Ballard's argument relied on the notion that Bell participated in the transaction with CitiFinancial, subjected herself to personal liability as a cosigner of the note, signed the settlement statement as well as the promissory note, but did not actually approve Ballard's signing of the note. Although the mortgage deed purportedly executed by Ballard and the promissory note secured by that deed were executed as part of the same overall transaction, the two documents created distinct legal obligations. The Supreme Court concluded that the trial court erred in analyzing the note and mortgage as if they were one and the same, both subject to the requirement of probate court approval. Therefore the Court reversed the award of summary judgment to Ballard on CitiFinancial's claim on the promissory note and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings on that claim. View "CitiFinancial, Inc. v. Balch" on Justia Law

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The issue before the Supreme Court in this case involved the interplay between rulings and requirements relating to zoning in connection with a planned development and enforcement of restrictive covenants and deed restrictions applicable to property within the development. Plaintiff obtained municipal zoning approval to reconfigure the lot lines in her two-lot farmstead parcel within the Quechee Lakes subdivision, as well as to construct a dwelling on the second, yet-to-be-developed lot. The Environmental Division affirmed the zoning board's award of the latter permit. Notwithstanding that order, in a declaratory judgment action also initiated by plaintiff, the civil division concluded that plaintiff's proposed construction violated the applicable restrictive covenants and deed restrictions. On appeal, plaintiff argued that the Environmental Division's decision resolved the dispute, that the civil division improperly considered extrinsic evidence when the disputed deed restrictions were clear on their face, that defendants' challenge to plaintiff's right to build the proposed dwelling was time-barred, and that the character of the development had changed so much that the disputed deed restrictions are no longer valid. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that Plaintiff's theory of the case was that the deed language was ambiguous; plaintiff was instrumental in framing the trial court's task as one of construing ambiguous deed language; and plaintiff led the way in introducing extrinsic evidence in support of plaintiff's own interpretation. "Given this record, plaintiff cannot now challenge the trial court's consideration of extrinsic evidence to interpret the documents." The Court concluded that plaintiff suffered no prejudice from the trial court's decision to consider the testimony about the context surrounding the disputed deed language - both that offered by plaintiff and by defendants. Finding no error in the trial court's decision to deny the motion for declaratory judgment, the Court reached no other issues plaintiff raised in her appeal and affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "Marsh Inter Vivos Trust v. McGillvray, et al." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff David Farrell, Trustee of the David Farrell Trust, appealed the grant of summary judgment for defendants Vermont Electric Power Company and Vermont Transco (together, VELCO), the holders of an easement for the construction and operation of electrical transmission lines on plaintiff's property. Plaintiff claimed that VELCO's easement was limited to the installation and operation of transmission lines necessary for the "Queen City Tap Project." He argued that VELCO exceeded the scope of its easement by installing a second transmission line on plaintiff's property in connection with an unrelated transmission-line project. The trial court held that the easement's express terms authorized VELCO to install transmission lines unrelated to the Queen City Tap Project, and that any increased impact on plaintiff's property caused by the new line did not amount to overburdening. "VELCO's easement, by its express terms, authorized its installation of the NRP line on the Property. Such use is also consistent with the easement's purpose - the transmission of electricity - and does not impose an additional burden on the Property requiring further compensation." Accordingly, the trial court's grant of summary judgment for VELCO was affirmed. View "Farrell v. Vermont Electric Power Co." on Justia Law