Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates

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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

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Rosann Maggio, widow and primary beneficiary of the estate of Daniel Maggio, appealed a decision of the superior court which held that Daniel Maggio did not own an interest in real property in Holland, Vermont at the time of his death. Ms. Maggio argued that the trial court erroneously admitted statements from her interrogatory answers in violation of the best evidence rule, the dead man's statutes, and the requirement in V.R.E. 602 that testimony be based on personal knowledge; that the court's conclusions that the property in question was partnership property and that Daniel Maggio ceded his interest in the partnership to his partner, Paul Silas, prior to Mr. Maggio's death were unsupported by the evidence; and that the trial court erred in declining to apply the statute of frauds to the transfer of Mr. Maggio's interest in the partnership. Upon review, the Supreme Court found that the transaction at issue in this case involved Mr. Maggio's relinquishment of his interest in the partnership, which left Silas fully vested in all remaining partnership assets, including the Holland property. "The pivotal distinction is between a transaction that constitutes a conveyance of an interest in a partnership, which is personal property regardless of whether the partnership assets thereby conveyed include real property, and a transaction that is a conveyance of the real property itself. The Court concluded that Ms. Maggio's arguments had no merit, and affirmed the superior court. View "In re Estate of Maggio" on Justia Law

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This case arose from a separation agreement made thirty-seven years ago between a now-deceased husband and plaintiff, his first wife. Plaintiff contended that her ex-husband promised to devise to her certain assets upon his death, and she brought various claims for equitable relief against defendant, her ex-husband's second wife, who survived him. The superior court concluded that plaintiff's claims were barred by the statute of limitations. On appeal, plaintiff argued that this conclusion was erroneous because, under the governing Massachusetts law, claims based on a contract to make a will do not accrue until the promisor's death. Although the Supreme Court accepted plaintiff's legal premise, it do not accept that it governed this case. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the lower court's judgment. View "Mueller v. Mueller and Joseph F. Mueller Trust" on Justia Law

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The central issue on appeal to the Supreme Court in this case arose from a purported agreement to bifurcate the allowance of a will from the future allowance of a codicil. Farwell W. Perry died leaving behind a wife and four adult children (three sons and a daughter). The probate court set a hearing to consider the allowance of the will. Shortly before the hearing, the decedent's sons filed a motion to continue the hearing to allow the interested persons to determine whether they wished to consent to the allowance of both the will and a newly discovered two-page letter from decedent to his children purporting to be a codicil to his will. The codicil involved a single, discrete piece of the estate: a trust which previously had been established with daughter as sole beneficiary would now include all four children as equal beneficiaries. The probate court granted a continuance and rescheduled the hearing. The decedent’s daughter moved to dismiss the petition as untimely. The probate court denied the motion to dismiss, and the daughter appealed to the superior court. A letter from sons' attorney to the register of the probate court representing that "[t]he several parties have reached an agreement to allow the Last Will and Testament of [decedent]," and that they "have agreed to hold in abeyance the need to hold a hearing on the allowance of the purported Codicil to the will" appeared clear on its face. However, the order issued by the probate court allowing the will made no mention of any bifurcation of the allowance of the will from consideration of the purported codicil. While the parties all knew about the codicil at that time, and the order purported to allow any codicils, only the will itself was admitted. The court order did not grant an exception to the principle that wills and their codicils are considered one instrument. The Supreme Court found the superior court's decision to be made in error: "the law is therefore clear: an order allowing a will normally includes any known codicils, and any later effort to allow a codicil is an impermissible collateral attack on a final order." The Court held that the codicil could not be admitted, reversed the superior court's decision and denied the sons' petition to allow the codicil. View "In re Estate of Perry" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Andrew Kennery, on behalf of the estate of Gladys Kennery, appealed the decision of the Windham Superior Court that granted the State's motion for summary judgment on his complaint alleging negligence, gross negligence, and civil rights violations against the State, two state troopers, and the Vermont Department of Public Safety (VDPS). Plaintiff's lawsuit stemmed from a "welfare check" the troopers performed on Plaintiff's decedent, Gladys Kennery. Gladys's daughter had requested that the troopers check on her elderly mother, but the troopers searched the wrong residence. Meanwhile, Gladys had collapsed in her backyard and was unable to get back up and reach shelter. Gladys was found the next morning and died twelve days later from hypothermia caused by prolonged exposure to the cold. The superior court held that the State owed no duty of reasonable care in performing the welfare check, thereby defeating Plaintiff's claims. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to defendants. Genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether a duty of care was created under the Restatement (Second) of Torts section 324A based upon the State's undertaking to perform the welfare check and whether the troopers breached that duty such that the State was liable under the Vermont Tort Claims Act (VTCA). The Court also held that the court erred in dismissing Plaintiff's claim of gross negligence against the troopers. The case was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "Kennery v. Vermont" on Justia Law