State Supremes Issue Split Decision on Mardigian

Relish the moment because this is as exciting as probate law gets.

We’ve written about the case before (See: This is Awkward).  Attorney prepares an estate plan (will and trust) for non-relative, leaving millions to said attorney and attorney’s family.

Trial court says: An attorney can’t do that under the rules of professional conduct, and therefore the estate plan is void – on summary disposition.

Court of Appeals reverses the trial court. COA says: While the lawyer may face discipline for the ethics violation, the validity of the trust is not implicated by the ethics rule.  That decision was 2 to 1.

Now, the Michigan Supreme Court reviews the Court of Appeals, and it’s a 3 to 3 tie [The 7th Justice abstains because he was on the COA panel that decided it – and was one of the two votes on the prevailing side.]  Apparently a tie means the COA decision is affirmed.

So the issue is whether a violation of the MRPC rule 1.8(c) (which precludes an attorney from creating estate plans for non-relatives in which they receive a substantial benefit) has any role in a trial contesting the validity of the estate plan? The answer is “no, it does not.”  While everyone agrees that the attorney is a fiduciary and that, as such, the presumption of undue influence is in play, the prevailing opinion is that the ethics violation, in and of itself, is not a factor in the case.

It’s a Long Decision

As indicated, there are two opinions, each with 3 signatories. In all it’s 53 pages long.  Click here to read the case.

The three who vote to affirm the COA ultimately conclude that it’s not their role to change the law of undue influence to enforce ethical obligations of the bar. The other three see this as an opportunity to do just that.  Their approach would be to treat a violation of the ethics rule as giving rise to an per se finding of undue influence.  They assert that the law needs to catch up with changes that have taken place since the last time the MSC reviewed this question more than 50 years ago, which changes included the adoption of MRPC 1.8(c).

Each opinion includes a lengthy discussion of undue influence and the presumption. It at least attempts to clarify some of the confusion that exists about the presumption and particularly about how it is rebutted.  This case will no doubt be quoted in litigation going forward.  So if you do this kind of work, you need to read this case.

They’re Making My Point

The Supremes don’t know it, and likely won’t revisit this issue in my lifetime, but their decision demonstrates the point I was trying to make in my recent post: The Imperfect Bandage of Undue Influence (click on name to read it).  My point is that:  Undue influence isn’t cutting it.

In both opinions, but especially the opinion of the non-prevailing Justices, the Justices seem uncomfortable with how difficult it is to prove undue influence and how easy it is for the presumption to be rebutted. For me though, their distress is too narrowly focused.  Even the side that would change the law to prevent this result in this case, would only do so in situations where a lawyer is involved.  From my perspective, it is just as suspicious when a benefiting child or housekeeper prepares the will, deed, beneficiary designation, etc..

So, in conclusion, the MSC has spoken. It’s a long opinion and long awaited by many in the probate community.  The facts of the case and the evenly divided court add a dash of drama.  Required reading for probate geeks.

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MSC Fixes Brody Trust

UPDATE:  The Court of Appeals issued a new opinion on August 7, 2018.  The blog post on that opinion can be read by clicking here.

As previously discussed on this blogsite, the problem with this Rhea Brody Trust case is that the Court of Appeals misconstrued the standing provisions of the Michigan Trust Code in concluding that a child/beneficiary of the settlor has standing to initiate a trust proceeding while the parent/settlor is alive. [See Remainder Beneficiary of Revocable Trust has Standing to Sue Trustee for Breach]. Besides being wrong, the COA’s conclusion was unnecessary because under the facts of this case (including the fact that the settlor was incompetent), the offended party had standing under the Michigan Trust Code.

As with the Brody conservatorship case, the COA decision was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court and an amicus brief was filed by the Probate Section of the State Bar. As with the Brody conservatorship matter, the MSC received the amicus brief, fixed the problem, and then denied leave as no longer necessary.  However, in this matter, the MSC actually ordered part of the COA’s decision vacated and remanded the matter to the COA to correct their analysis.  So presumably there will be another, more enlightened, COA decision forthcoming.

Click here to read the MSC Order.

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Beneficial Interest in Trust Enough for PRE

In this published decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals goes to great lengths to conclude that a person who lives in a house that is owned by an irrevocable trust, which trust provides this person with a right of occupancy, is an “owner” of the house for the purposes of qualifying for the personal residence exclusion with respect to their property taxes.

Click here to read Breakey v Department of Treasury.

 

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COA Sets the Record Straight on Priorities

This new published Court of Appeals opinion shouldn’t surprise anyone. The COA holds that where a professional guardian/conservator resigns, and the only adult child of the ward petitions to be appointed guardian and conservator, the probate court cannot appoint a new professional guardian and conservator unless it makes a finding that the child is unsuitable.  That’s because the child has priority to be appointed.  The fact that the probate judge by-passed the child and appointed a new professional fiduciary without such evidence was reversible error.

Click here to read In Re Guardianship/Conservatorship of Harold William Gerstler.

The facts are kind of fun: a devious Aunt, a lazy guardian ad litem; but in the end the COA simply reads the statutes regarding priority of appointments and applies them to the facts.

The only thing curious about this case is that it is published. But perhaps the timing of this publication tells us something.  Perhaps, just maybe, the COA is trying to clean up the confusion left from the recently published (and revised and republished) Brody case which said that the statutory priorities were “merely a guide for the probate court’s exercise of discretion.”  [Check out the post “Better Than Nothing?” for a discussion of that case.]

Significantly, the Gerstler opinion also adopts the position that the standard of proof necessary to by-pass a person with priority is as stated in the Redd case: a preponderance. [Click here to read “Seeing Redd”.]

So, when the issue of appointment of either a guardian or conservator is in play, a party with priority is entitled to appointment unless it is shown by a preponderance of evidence that they are not suitable. That means a probate court has to have a hearing and consider evidence to make this decision. I, for one, am glad that’s clear.

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