Test of Capacity is a Function of Complexity

Party A argued that because a person executed a financial power of attorney and patient advocate designation in June of 2013, the trial court should have found that said person must have been competent to execute a shareholder’s proxy signed in December of that same year. But the trial court found otherwise.

In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeals says: Not only is it reasonable for the trial court to have concluded that the person’s capacity diminished in the intervening months, but – wait for it –  – –  it is also true that a proxy is a different thing than a power of attorney and therefore the test for capacity is not the same.

That, my friends, is a proposition that is commonly argued, but heretofore not so clearly stated in Michigan law. The proposition that the test of capacity is a function of the complexity of the decision being challenged comes up in litigation all the time. And this is a published decision.  (emphasis added)

Menhennick Family Trust v Timothy Menhennick (click on the name to read the case) purports to be about the meaning of a statute in the Business Corporation Act, but the holding primarily turns on the issue of capacity. Several large chunks of this relatively short opinion clearly state the rules relating to a finding of capacity and how that test can vary with the decision at issue.  Well worth the read.

This is an important decision for probate litigators. I know I will be citing this decision in cases to come, and I am sure others will as well.

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Summary Affirmed in Undue Influence Case

In Re Margaret Krum Trust is an unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals dealing with undue influence. [Click on the name to read the case.]  This is a case that was handled by our firm.  We represented the appellee.

Two sisters were cut out of their mother’s trust, and contested the validity of the document when their mother died. They originally pled undue influence and lack of capacity, but withdrew the incapacity claim after discovery was complete.  Our client, the Trustee, brought a motion for summary disposition on the remaining claim of undue influence, and prevailed.  The appeal was from that order.

In affirming the trial court, the COA addresses two points worth noting:

First, the COA says that the existence of a financial power of attorney nominating the alleged undue influencer as agent is sufficient to establish the element of a fiduciary relationship for the purpose of giving rise to the presumption of undue influence, even when there is no evidence that the nominated agent ever exercised any authority under the document.

Second, the COA holds that summary disposition can be granted in an undue influence case even when the presumption of undue influence has been established. This appears to be an accurate statement of the law, even though other panels of the COA have, at times, held otherwise.

If you read the case you will note that the COA deals with the issue of after discovered evidence in the context of a motion for reconsideration. Kind of an interesting twist in this case, if you’re looking for more.

And if you read the case you also learn that the scrivener of the contested document was our friend and colleague Danielle Streed. Thanks for your help in this matter Danielle.

Finally, our own Drummond Black did all the heavy lifting on the MSD and COA briefs. Thanks D. You’re the best!

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Great Facts and Experts Can’t Survive Summary

An unpublished opinion today that looks at the question of when expert opinions are sufficient to create a question of fact, versus when they remain mere speculation; in the context of a motion for summary disposition.

In In Re Jeannine A. Palazzo Irrevocable Trust (click on the name to read the case), the attorney/trustee failed to inform beneficiaries of his activities in relation to an irrevocable life insurance trust (an “ILIT”) established for their benefit by an aunt. During the years leading up to the aunt/settlor’s death, the liquidity in the ILIT was depleted to the point of near insolvency.  This prompted the attorney/trustee to liquidate the policy for $36,000 and by doing so give up the $500,000 death benefit. As it turns out, he did this just days before the death of the aunt/settlor.

The successor trustee sued attorney/trustee for breach, and presented testimony of an expert estate planning lawyer and an accountant, both of whom opined that had the attorney/trustee performed his fiduciary duties with respect to informing the beneficiaries, the beneficiaries could have taken steps to protect their interests and potentially preserved the policy so as to receive some or all of the death benefit.

An Interesting Question

The trustee/attorney moved for summary disposition in the trial court and prevailed on the argument that merely speculating that the beneficiaries could have or might have taken steps to alter the outcome is insufficient, if you don’t explain what they would have done and when.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, adopting the proposition that merely speculating that something could have been done is insufficient to create a question of fact sufficient to survive summary disposition.

An Uncomfortable Result

A central premise to trust law is that beneficiaries are empowered to protect their interests by being provided information. A trustee protects itself by providing that information.  When a trustee fails to provide the required information, the law holds the trustee liable for the resulting damages and does not allow the trustee the protection of time barriers to claims that would otherwise arise.

For a court to conclude that although a trustee breached its duties by failing to provide the required information, but that the trustee is nonetheless absolved of liability on summary disposition even where experts have opined that something could have been done had the information been provided, just feels wrong.

Conclusion

Bottom line is the beneficiaries lost on summary because they did not specifically state what could have been done to alter the outcome had the missing information been provided. While that seems like a fine line to draw; that is the line that worked in this case, and a line litigators will want to remember when they need to make the same distinction in future matters.

They say it is an ill-wind that blows no one good, and no doubt there is one trustee/attorney who will be full of Thanksgiving today.

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Opinion puts Fees of Former PR’s (and their Attorneys) at Risk

If you are a lawyer who handles probate estate administration, you will want to take note of this unpublished Court of Appeals opinion. The gravamen of this decision is that a claim for fees by a personal representative who has been removed or who resigns, will be barred unless it is filed within four months of their removal or resignation; and the same would be true of the fees for legal services or other professional services provided to the former PR.

In In Re Estate of Jack Edward Busselle (click on name to read the case), the Court of Appeals construes the provisions of MCL 700.3803 (click here to read the statute) that address time limits to claims that arise after the decedent’s death.

MCL 700.3803(2) says that such claims must be filed within 4 months, but MCL 700.3803(3)(c) says that time limit does not apply to:

(c) Collection of compensation for services rendered and reimbursement of expenses advanced by the personal representative or by an attorney, auditor, investment adviser, or other specialized agent or assistant for the personal representative of the estate.

What this case holds is that the term “the personal representative” as used in MCL 700.3803(3)(c) does not include a former personal representative, and therefore a former personal representative has four months from the date of their removal or resignation to file a claim for services. This statutory construction would then impose the same time limit on claims from professionals, including lawyers, who did work for the former PR.

This case should probably be published since it appears to be an issue of first impression and relies on no prior authority for this interpretation of the law. The COA’s interpretation seems to present a malpractice trap for lawyers who have clients who resign or are removed as PR and who take more than four months to file a claim  for their client’s fees.  The law as construed in this case also would present a time bar for lawyers who represent clients who resign or are removed and PR, and who do not file a claim for their own fees within the four month window.

In any event, it has been a while since I have seen my old friend Tom Trainer who acted as successor PR in this matter, and who prevailed as Appellee in this case. Nice to know Tom is still out there stirring things up.

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PR Appointment for Estate with No Assets

Here’s a case that’s worth filing away for those who do probate litigation and estate administration. It’s unpublished, but addresses an issue that comes up not infrequently.  The holding is that a probate court cannot deny a petition to appoint a personal representative on the grounds that the estate has no assets.

In In Re Estate of Janet Kapp (click on name to read case), the trial court denied a petition to appoint a personal representative on the grounds that there were no known assets to be administered. The COA reversed and remanded, holding that there is no basis in EPIC to support the trial court’s decision.  The COA says:

Instead, the court concluded that the appointment of a personal representative was unnecessary because there were no assets in the estate to probate.  In doing so, however, the probate court did not cite statutory authority that allows a court to deny the appointment of a nominated personal representative on those grounds.  To the contrary, a court rule provides that personal representatives do not need to provide notice to creditors when “[t]he estate has no assets[.]” MCR 5.208(D)(3)(a). It follows that personal representatives can be appointed even when the estate has no assets.

There are many reasons to open an estate which have nothing to do with distribution of assets. This is a good decision, and although unpublished, should provide an outline for the argument when attorneys are faced with this misunderstanding in their cases.

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Unpublished Decision Demonstrates Difficulties Inherent in Setting Aside Settlements

The process by which this issue arises is somewhat confusing, but basically the facts are that:

Parent has two children. Original trust leaves residue to his children 50-50; and if either child predeceases, the share of predeceased child goes to the descendants of the deceased child.

One child dies and then the parent becomes demented, subject to guardianship and conservatorship. Conservator petitions the trial court for instruction on the validity of a trust amendment which may or may not have been signed. No signed copy is found. The purported amendment was made after the death of the child, and if valid, would leave the entire residue to the surviving child and nothing to the descendants of the deceased child.

Matter is mediated and the surviving child and descendants of the deceased child reach an agreement regarding the division of the residue, which agreement is approved by the trial court.

Subsequently, the child who would have received everything under the purported trust amendment announces that he has found the signed amendment, and seeks to set aside the order approving the settlement pursuant to MCR 2.612(C)(1).

The trial court denies the motion to set aside the order, and the Court of Appeals affirms.

In Re Frank M. Lambrecht, Jr. Trust (click on name to read the case) is unpublished, but I think it does a reasonably good job looking at what it takes to set aside a settlement agreement, and probably gets the right result in what is no doubt a very close case.

There are several grounds on which the agreement (or more accurately, the court order adopting the agreement) is challenged, all of which come under MCR 2.612(C)(1).

MCR 2.612(C)(1)(a) – Mutual Mistake.  Court of Appeals holds that while it may well have been a mutual mistake of a material fact that no signed amendment existed, the parties all knew that it was possible that one might subsequently be found, and that possibility was presumably factored into the value they placed on the case when they settled.  So, unlike some other types of orders, an order approving a settlement agreement has already factored in the possibility of this type of mistake = no relief here.

MCR 2.612(C)(1)(b) – After Discovered Material Evidence.  The Court of Appeals says that the child challenging the settlement agreement is correct that the discovery of the signed amendment would meet most of the requirements necessary to obtain relief under MCR 2.612(C)(1)(b), but on these facts this contesting child fails to meet the burden of showing that it could not have been found with “reasonable diligence.”   The child seeking relief says the signed amendment was found in his parent’s desk drawer, but that he chose not to look there while his parent was alive, out of respect for that parent’s privacy.  Basically, his deference on this point may have been admirable but does not obviate his obligation to use due diligence.  There is no question he had access, and presumably the desk drawer would have been an obvious place to look.  So that won’t work.

MCR 2.612(C)(1)(e) and (f) – No Longer Equitable and Other Grounds for Relief.  The Court of Appeals notes that the settlement was not solely based on the fact that a signed amendment was missing. Rather, the settlement negotiations included other issues, including whether, even if the signed amendment were found, the amendment would be set aside for lack of capacity or undue influence.  In light of the other variables in play during the settlement process, it could not be said that the resulting agreement is no longer fair.

Conclusion. This case neatly presents the issue of how and why an order approving a settlement agreement is different from other types of court orders when it comes to seeking relief under MCR 2.612(C)(1); and neatly applies the law to facts that make the decision a close call on several grounds.

 

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Terror Clause Canaries Don’t Fly

In this unpublished decision from the Court of Appeals, a potential litigant filed a “petition for instruction” which asked the trial judge to decide the question of: If a subsequent petition to modify the trust were filed, whether such a petition would be deemed to violate the trust’s terror clause and thereby cause petitioner to forfeit her interest in the trust?

Click here to read: In Re Robert E. Whitton Revocable Trust

Curiously, a trial judge saw fit to issue such an opinion. In this case, the trial court determined that the petition for instruction did not itself violate the terror clause, but that a subsequent petition to modify the trust would violate the clause and that the petitioner had no probable cause to bring that petition.

A terror clause (aka “no contest clause”) is a provision in a will or trust that says a beneficiary will be penalized (typically the penalty is to lose their interest in the estate) if they contest the will or trust at issue.

Michigan law on terror clauses is pretty straightforward and is spelled out in MCL 700.7113 (for trusts) an in MCL 700.2518 and 700.3905 (for wills). (click on the statutes to read them). They are generally enforceable, but will not be enforced in cases where the party had “probable cause” to initiate the proceeding.

Litigants, like the one in this case, have long attempted is to come up with a way of having a court determine whether they will be penalized if they bring an action before actually doing so. They want to know in advance whether they will be deemed to have triggered the terror clause if they file a petition being contemplated.  These efforts don’t work.  Several years ago, the Court of Appeals issued a published decision in a case handled by our firm in which it declared that trial courts lack authority to rule on such speculative matters for the reasons that the issue is non-justiciable (not ripe, as it were).  Click here to read that prior post.  Basically, the appellate courts have said that if you want to contest a document, you have to take your chances.  So, it’s no surprise that the Court of Appeals held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to decide this case, and vacated that part of the trial court’s decision.  And it’s curious that, in light of the clear law on this point, the trial judge in this matter thought that such an action could be decided.

This case also offers the opportunity to discuss another, perhaps dicier, aspect of our terror clause statutes, which is that the imposition of a penalty is not necessarily limited to proceedings in which the validity of document at issue is being contested. Rather these statutes indicate that a terror clause can be written to impose a penalty for initiating any type of proceeding relating to the trust or will.  So, in this case, the anticipated subsequent petition was being framed as a “petition to modify” a trust to conform with an amendment that the settlor had purportedly had drafted, but never got around to signing.  The appellants in this case were hoping to escape the imposition of the terror clause penalty on the idea that the subsequent petition they were considering wouldn’t actually (per their argument) contest the validity of the trust, but would only inquire as to the validity of an unsigned amendment.  Likewise the respondents in this matter argued that the act of bringing a petition for instruction was itself a violation of the terror clause.  The point of all this is that Michigan law allows for very broad terror clause provisions, including, presumably, a provision that would penalize a litigant for bringing a petition for instruction, or that says a petition seeking to recognize an unsigned amendment is a violation. The opinion in this case indicates only that the terror clause in this trust was “lengthy.”  It is not clear what the scope of this lengthy terror clause is, but it is seems possible at least that a terror clause could have been written which would have been unambiguous on these specific issues.

So, the points here are that (1) There are no terror clause canaries – no free bites at the apple. When a terror clause is in play, you take your chances.  And (2) A terror clause may be written to impose a penalty for initiating any form of proceeding which relates to the will or trust at issue.  The scope of the terror clause itself is significant in deciding how to proceed in cases where these provisions are in play.

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COA on Brody Trust Remand: We Were Both Right

In what should be the last chapter in the Rhea Brody Trust saga, the Court of Appeals has released its decision resulting from a Michigan Supreme Court Order remanding the case to the COA.  As previously discussed here, confusion was created by the first Brody Trust decision (“Brody I”) regarding whether a child/beneficiary has standing to initiate litigation involving a parent’s revocable trust regardless of whether the parent/settlor is still competent.

To read the new Brody case, click here.

To read prior posts on this case, click here and here.

In Brody Trust I, the COA held that a child who is a beneficiary of a revocable trust may have standing to initiate litigation regarding the administration of a revocable trust, regardless of whether the parent/settlor is competent. The COA relied upon the definition of an “interested person” as set forth in MCL 700.1105(c).  That decision shocked the probate community, and caused the probate section of the state bar to file an amicus brief asking the Michigan Supreme Court to reverse that holding.  [The probate section did not ask for a reversal of the outcome of Brody I, because based on the facts of the case, and specifically the fact that the settlor was in fact incompetent, and the trustee was also the settlor’s agent under a power of attorney, standing would exist under MCL 700.7603(2).]  Click on the statute to read those laws.

The MSC accepted briefs on appeal, but rather than hear and decide the case, the MSC simply vacated controversial portions of Brody I and remanded it to the COA for a new and improved opinion.

Now, the new opinion (“Brody II”) has been issued.  In it, the COA acknowledges that the probate section was correct in asserting that MCL 700.7603(2) would apply in this case and that the application of that statute would provide standing to the petitioner/child/beneficiary. But – and it’s kind of a big but – they say that they were not wrong in their application of MCL 700.1105(c).

Litigators Rejoice?

Brody II is published, so it is the law. What this means, it seems, is that under MCL 700.1105(c), depending on the facts and circumstances of the case, a probate court could find that a child or beneficiary of a revocable trust might have standing to initiate litigation regarding the administration of a revocable trust even where the settlor remains competent and could amend the trust and cut out complaining child/beneficiary.  Is this a boon for litigators?  Possibly, but I think probably not.  Probate courts have discretion under the second sentence of 700.1105(c) to determine who would be an interested person in any particular proceeding, and that decision is based on the “particular purposes of, and matter involved in” the litigation.  Presumably, it would be a rare set of circumstances where a trial court would want to exercise their discretion to allow litigation by an aggrieved child or beneficiary in cases where the settlor can speak for themselves.  Presumably also, competent settlors who are offended by having their children and/or other beneficiaries initiate litigation, will in fact amend their documents and resolve the issue that way.

Conclusion

So, the COA missed the obvious way to resolve this case in Brody I, and they acknowledge that Brody II. But they don’t just leave it at that.  By taking the “we were both right” approach, they allow for the possibility of future litigation initiated by children or beneficiaries of revocable trusts while the settlor is competent.

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Michipremes Ponder the Space between Absent and Divorced

The Michigan Supreme Court has ventured back into probate law, this time to explain the rules for determining what it takes to prove that one spouse was “willfully absent” from the other pursuant to MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i). It’s another lengthy opinion, and again there is significant division among the Justices.

In Michigan, if a married person dies, their surviving spouse has certain statutory financial rights in the probate estate of the deceased spouse. That is, unless the surviving spouse was “willfully absent” from the deceased spouse for a year or more before the death.

The facts of this case are that James married Maggie in 1968. They had four children together.  In 1976, Maggie packed up the kids, moved out and successfully sued James for support.  The two lived apart, although both in the same town (Saginaw), up until James died in 2012.  The trial court found that Maggie was still adequately connected to James throughout their 36 year separation so that it could not be said she was willfully absent.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Supreme Court affirmed in a 4-3 decision.

Much of the majority opinion focuses on facts of this particular case, which the majority weaves to construct a story whereby the 36 year absence is portrayed as something short of a willful absence.  [I love it that the majority counts it as evidence of their continued emotional connection that James consented to the support order – rather than have a trial and possibly face a higher amount.  Or that he joined Maggie in a suit to allow her to continue to receive healthcare benefits through his employer – when presumably his support payments would have increased had she been cut off.]

The dissent, joined by three justices, argues that the majority has stretched the meaning of the word “absent” beyond reason.

Ultimately however, the case of In Re Estate of James Erwin Sr. will stand for the proposition that:

Absence in this context presents a factual inquiry based on the totality of the circumstances, and courts should evaluate whether complete physical and emotional absence existed, resulting in an end to the marriage for practical purposes. The burden is on the party challenging an individual’s status as a surviving spouse to show that he or she was “willfully absent,” physically and emotionally, from the decedent spouse.

To read In Re Estate of James Erwin,, Sr. click here.

Congrats to friend and colleague Valerie Kutz-Otway for prevailing despite some clearly difficult facts.

XXX TURN BACK NOW XXX

Supplemental Ramblings

Ok, these cases are kind of interesting in a sociological sort of way, right? And the courts didn’t create this problem. The legislature made this an issue by deciding that divorce isn’t the only line that matters; and by giving it a name (“willfully absent”) that suggests ill will or selfishness. So there’s a country music quality to the whole thing that invites gender stereotypes and morality judgments.

Remember Arbutus and Lyle? (click here for a refresher)

Maggie is different than Arbutus but the same. Both are seemingly good women who did what they had to do to get by. Arbutus was a good hearted woman lovin’ a good timin’ man (she loved him in spite of his wicked ways that she don’t understand). Maggie’s story is less developed, but the suggestion is that she did what she had to do for herself and their children and that she would have stood by her man, if he had only been a better husband.

So maybe this is really a gender stereotype thing. Would James have been treated as surviving spouse as to Maggie’s estate?  Would the Court have gone to such lengths to find a sufficiently adequate emotional connection to give him a bite out of her life savings?  Seems unlikely to me. His wife left him and took the kids, then had to sue him for support.

Or maybe this is just about sex. What if Arbutus or Maggie had gone off and shacked up with some other guys?  Would the court feel so warm and fuzzy towards these women, or would their sexual liberation be a bar to their rights?

So when this issue arises, we face something like a common law divorce trial, one where fault is a relevant inquiry. Is this helpful or necessary where we already have a clear line of married or divorced?  But, as I say, the legislature created this situation, not the courts.  In fact, by maximizing the circumstances in which someone can be found to not be willfully absent, that is, by minimizing the space between willful absence and divorce, the MSC has probably done all it can to discourage litigation in this arena.

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Phone App “document” is a Valid Will in Michigan

It happened and it’s published.

The Michigan Court of Appeals held, in a published decision, that a paragraph posted by a decedent on his phone is a valid will under Michigan law, and specifically, MCL 700.2503.

We’ve discussed Michigan’s uniquely liberal law regarding instruments intended to be wills before. See, for instance, Section 2503 Grows Up (click on name).

In this case, Duane Horton wrote a note in his journal stating that his testamentary wishes could be found on his phone app. They looked and they found it.  The trial court admitted the electronic expression as the decedent’s will under MCL 700.2503. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Click here to read In re Estate of Duane Francis Horton, II

It’s an important case as it further fleshes out the impact of Michigan’s cutting edge law.

First, it dismisses the number one misconception about Section 2503, which is that it is intended only to fix “minor, technical deficiencies” in documents that would otherwise be admissible as holographic wills or otherwise. The COA holds that the statute doesn’t say that, and doesn’t mean that.  Rather Section 2503 is a stand alone, separate process for admitting testamentary expressions which does not require any formality, only clear and convincing evidence of intent.

Equally important, the case stands for the proposition that an electronic document is a “document” for the purposes of this statute.

These are powerful developments in probate law, and, for better or worse, Michigan seems to be on the cutting edge. Fun issues, fun times.

 

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