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A Corktown Hotch Potch

This is a published Court of Appeals probate case which looks at the limits of a trial court’s authority to dismiss an action on its own initiative.

The case is called In Re Monier Khalil Living Trust (click on the name to read the case).

Spouse died leaving property in trust for the surviving spouse, Evelyn. Evelyn was given the right to all income, an unlimited power to invade principal, and the power to redirect or distribute trust property to others, during her life and upon death.  Further, Evelyn’s decisions with respect to all matters were expressly not subject to review.

Among other things, the trusts contained business and real estate interests in Detroit’s trendy Corktown neighborhood.

Evelyn began exercising her powers to distribute trust property among her children, and did so unequally as the document allowed. After several years, the children who felt they were getting shorted sued, claiming that, among other things, Evelyn was being unduly influenced.

The trial judge held several in-chambers conferences with the lawyers, but did almost nothing on the record in the courtroom, and ultimately dismissed petitioner’s case sua sponte. The petitioners appealed.

Baldwin’s Foil

I think the reason this case was published is because the COA had to rely on an unpublished opinion to get to the result it wanted.

Appellees relied on In Re Baldwin Trust 274 Mich App 387 (2007), a published case in which the COA upheld a trial court after it had dismissed a matter sua sponte when the trial judge had essentially heard enough.  Appellants, however, had to rely on an unpublished decision: In Re Clemence Trust (COA docket 332099, October 31, 2017), in which the trial court was reversed after doing the same thing. Click on those case names if you want to read those cases.

In this matter, the COA spent several pages explaining how the facts between the two cases differed, and how the facts of this case were more like Clemence than Baldwin.  One clear point of irritation to this panel of the COA was that this trial judge did everything, or nearly everything, in chambers, and left the COA with almost no record to review.  As a result of this analysis, the COA reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the matter for further proceedings “on the record.”

With this decision there is now a published decision to rely upon as a foil for Baldwin.  The law seems to be that while probate trial courts may at times dismiss cases sua sponte, the decision to do so is subject to review.  Among the factors to be considered in deciding whether the trial court acted properly, is the extent to which the trial court allowed the aggrieved party to create a record.

The Whimpiness Factor

Another point made by the COA is that the petitioners never actually formally requested a hearing on the record, and never actually initiated discovery as they are empowered to do. In most cases, the COA would say that they therefore had abandoned their right of appeal on these issues.  But here, the COA allows those issues to serve as the basis for their decision – but not without some heat:

The attorneys also deserve a share of the blame for our inability to properly review this case. It is incumbent on counsel to insist on a record of critically important proceedings, even in the face of judicial disapproval or disagreement. A written motion to create a record might have avoided the need for this appeal.

[I recognize that some litigators who practice regularly in Wayne County (and perhaps other courts) might suggest that this behavior is not whimpiness at all, but rather a matter of survival.]

[When and how to challenge a controlling trial judge is a topic for another day.]

A Hotch Potch B’Gosh

So finally: What is a Hotch Potch?

This case was started with a “Petition for …. return of property to hotch potch…”

This opinion informs us that hotch potch (aka “hotch pot”) is a legal term of art, albeit an “antiquated” one.  Basically, it means: squaring things up before distributing the estate when numerous advancements have been made to the greedy kids.  Nice to have a label for it, or I should say, a label that can be used in polite company.

 

Reflections from a Costly Goose Chase

The crux of this unpublished opinion is whether the cost of litigation initiated by a conservator that turns out to be a big waste of money, should be paid out of the estate.

In In Re Conservatorship of Marilyn Burhop the probate court appointed a local lawyer (“Jones”) as conservator over a vulnerable adult (click on the name to read the case).  Jones learned that prior to her appointment, the ward, Marilyn, transferred nearly $500,000 to certain acquaintances (the “Sirchias”).  In addition, Marilyn changed her estate plan to benefit the Sirchias exclusively.

After some preliminary investigation, Jones decided to sue the Sirchias to recover the funds and to initiate litigation to set aside the estate planning changes. After incurring about $175,000 in legal and fiduciary fees, Jones settles. Curiously, perhaps conveniently, the COA fails to share the details of the settlement – such as whether the conservator recovered anything. But reading between the lines, it seems that Jones simply dropped the case.  The issue then became whether the massive fees that Jones and her attorneys charged to pursue this litigation should be allowed as expenses of the estate, when, in the end, the estate received no benefit.  The trial court allowed the fees in their entirety, and the order allowing those fees is what was appealed and affirmed.

Here’s what I think:

Seek Instruction

The way this case begins is all too common. These days, conservators are often appointed to protect a vulnerable adult from financial exploitation, which exploitation may have already begun.  Accordingly the question of whether the conservator should simply protect what’s left or pursue recovery of what may have been improperly removed is typical.  In this case, Jones apparently did some preliminary investigation before initiating litigation, but what Jones did not do, and what I think was her initial mistake, was to ask the probate court for instruction.

In our firm, when handling these matters, we commonly to seek court instruction at the outset. We ask the court to authorize the conservator to pursue litigation and also to enter into an engagement with our firm.  In that process we present the court with the proposed engagement letter.  We don’t do this in every case, but I am thinking we will start doing it more often.

Certainly, it seems to me that, before Jones was $175,000 into the litigation, she should have gone before the court and asked whether this matter should continue to be pursued and at what cost. Perhaps the court would have told her not to pursue the litigation at all, perhaps the court would have found that a contingency fee arrangement would have been more appropriate, or perhaps the decision to drop the matter would have been made at an earlier date?  We won’t know, because court instruction was apparently never requested.

Asset Recovery v Estate Plan Changes

In this opinion, the COA fails to address what I think is a critical distinction. The appropriateness of a conservator seeking to recover misappropriated funds is one thing, challenging estate planning documents is quite another.

With respect to misappropriated funds, such funds would become property of the conservator, would provide additional resources to benefit the ward during her remaining life, and failure to pursue recovery in a timely manner would present the possibility that a statute of limitations would be missed or that the funds would be dissipated and become unrecoverable.

Challenging the estate planning documents is different. Assuming the changes are strictly with respect to testamentary disposition, setting them aside would not increase the resources available to provide for the ward’s needs, and in most cases there would be no statute of limitations to worry about.  In fact, our laws are structured so that such changes are disclosed to the real parties in interest upon death (or in the case of a trust, upon incapacity) and the real parties in interest are empowered to protect their own interests at their own cost.  If there is any argument that a conservator would have a reason to engage in litigation over the validity of estate planning documents, it would be with respect to MCL 700.5428 which imposes duties on the conservator to manage resources in manner that does not disrupt the known estate plan.  Accordingly, for instance, if there are specific gifts, beneficiary designations or joint accounts, in deciding what resources to dissipate on the needs of the ward, the conservator must take into account the impact of those decisions on the overall estate plan of the ward.  But this issue was not raised in this case, and if it were, the appropriate approach would seemingly be to seek court instruction regarding the use of resources.

To my thinking, the decision of this conservator to spend money litigating the validity of the estate planning documents in this case is highly questionable.

Disregarding Valentino

There is an old rule that says a fiduciary is entitled to fees when what they have done has benefitted the estate. The 1983 Michigan Court of Appeals case In Re Valentino Estate, 128 Mich App 87 (1983) is often cited for this rule.  This opinion holds that Valentino was superseded by EPIC.  Well, that’s news to me.  First, I would be interested in knowing whether there is any published authority for that conclusion, I know of none and they cite none.  Further, it is worth noting that as recently as 2010, with the adoption of the Michigan Trust Code, the concept of a benefit to the estate being a basis for allowing fees was seemingly recognized in MCL 700.7904.  While that law relates to a non-fiduciary’s claim for recovery of fees from a trust, the commentary cites cases much older than Valentino for this rule.

Outspent

A common litigation strategy is to simply outspend your opponent until they wilt. In this case, the COA asserts that the Sirchias did just that.  The COA says the Sirchias engaged in a “scorched earth” litigation strategy, noting that no less than sixteen motions for summary disposition were filed (and denied).  The suggestion is that Jones may have had a case, but only relented because she was running out of money to spend on the litigation.  Seems plausible.  But where in the law does it say that in deciding whether to initiate litigation the conservator should assume that the opposing party will play nice? Rather, I think, this is all the more reason that Jones should have sought court instruction before starting this fight, should have limited the scope of litigation to asset recovery, or retained counsel on a contingency basis.

A Duty to Litigate

In passing the COA in this opinion says that Jones would have been negligent “under the circumstances” not to have pursued this litigation. Um.  Not a published decision so I guess I will leave that conclusion alone.

The Specter of Bleak House

Let’s step outside our bubble for a minute and look at this from the perspective of the Sirchias. The estate of someone they apparently had a close relationship with is diminished by $175,000.  Their inheritance is diminished by $175,000.  They presumably had to spend a similar amount defending themselves against claims that, in the end, were dropped.

Many people (who are not probate lawyers) perceive the probate court as a place where the property of the dead and dying is consumed by a hungry pack of lawyers and court officials. It’s an unflattering image that dates back centuries. Without passing judgment on anyone involved in this sordid affair, you can’t help but acknowledge, I think, that this case sort of feeds into that perception.

Conclusion

I’ve gone on long enough.

Many many conservatorship cases arise where something is amiss and prior conduct may give rise to the possibility of financial exploitation of the ward. Whether the conservator tries to remedy those wrongs and recover the missing assets, or to simply move forward and do their best with what they have control over, is often a decision they need to make.

I don’t mean to beat up on the conservator in this case, or to suggest that she didn’t act in good faith. Jones may well have been justifiably outraged by the actions of the Sirchias in the period prior to her appointment as conservator. But even giving this conservator the benefit of every doubt, in the end, it is hard to say that the ridiculously unfavorable outcome of this case could not have been ameliorated, perhaps avoided, had other reasonable decisions been made along the way.

Litigation Strategies Part IX: Six pages of: “You Lose”

I was reading an unpublished court of appeals opinion the other day. It was six pages long and pretty much every part of it could be summarized as: “and therefore the Appellant loses.”

I read most every probate case that comes out, published and unpublished, and I write about a few of them, but I ignore most of them. The ones I ignore are ignored because they don’t say anything important.  Someone lost at the trial level and decided to appeal.  A lot of times the case they had in the trial court was lame.  But, other times it seems like their case may have had merit, but because of the way the matter was handled during trial, at the appellate level, their case stinks.

The morning after I finished the first day of a trial, I was reading a case which was typical of the type of cases that I ignore. And it occurred to me that all these years of reading about all these bad appeals has changed the way I practice, the way I try a case.

I’ve become “that guy.”

In court the prior day, I was annoying; putting opposing counsel (a nice person) through their paces as they tried to admit records and examine witnesses; objecting to foundation; objecting to relevance; objecting to hearsay; arguing that a question was outside the scope of cross exam.

I used to hate lawyers like that. But now I am that.  Not always, but if the case is the type of case that if I lose I might want to appeal, I do those things.

What I understand now, that I didn’t fully appreciate when I was less experienced, is that when a case is appealed, the Court of Appeals will go out of its way to affirm the trial court. And if they can affirm the trial court because an objection wasn’t made or an issue wasn’t preserved, they will.  Affirming the trial court on technical grounds is easier than getting into the more challenging questions of law and fact that were the focus of the case when the appellant hired a lawyer and went to trial in the first place.

So, my thinking is: Don’t make it easy for the COA. When you try a case, in addition to doing what needs to be done to persuade the fact finder to rule in your favor, make sure you create a record that would force the COA to look at the substance of the case if your lose at trial.  Keep bad stuff out if you can.  Get in all the evidence that supports your position, even if it seems like overkill at times.  And most of all: make objections and preserve issues.

Someday I might take the time to count, but, just guessing, I bet 90% of probate cases that get appealed, get affirmed. And that isn’t because all of those cases couldn’t or shouldn’t have been won.

Bottom line: Being “that guy” or “that gal” may be uncomfortable at times, but if you want to avoid having to explain six pages of “you lose” to your client, it’s just the way it has to be.

Point of Clarification: This post is about trial practice in cases that would justify an appeal if you lose.  Being “that guy” or “that gal” in depositions, or in hearings on matters that no one is ever going to appeal, remains just plain obnoxious.

Capacity Case Illustrates Witness Weight

This unpublished opinion provides an opportunity to discuss the types of witnesses that are often involved in lack of capacity and undue influence cases, and how they are weighed at the trial level.

The case of is called In Re Estate of Aurelia Rokosky (click on the name to read the case).

Aurelia lived alone on Grosse Ile. She apparently had no spouse or children.  But she had a friend who lived nearby until 1994 when this friend moved to Portland, Oregon.  In 1976 Aurelia prepared a will leaving everything to this Portland friend.

In 2008, when Aurelia was 86, she developed a new friendship with a person in Michigan. This Michigan friend helped Aurelia with her shopping and housework.  In 2010, this Michigan friend began helping Aurelia with her bill payment and finances.

Aurelia also had a neighbor (“Neighbor Bill”) with whom she had a good relationship until mid-2010. Before their friendship broke off, Neighbor Bill observed that Aurelia suffered from significant confusion, that she was unable, for instance, to operate her television, and that she repeated herself frequently. Their relationship ended, Neighbor Bill claimed, because Aurelia became paranoid.  At one point in late 2010, Neighbor Bill called the local police department because he was afraid that Aurelia was not safe living alone, but the police found her home and living situation to be in reasonable order.

On January 24, 2011, Aurelia saw a lawyer and had a will prepared leaving everything to the Michigan friend. The lawyer testified that she was clear and coherent at their meeting, and that she had testamentary capacity.

That same day, when Aurelia arrived home, she called Neighbor Bill several times, each time in an agitated state, and each time explaining that she had arranged for her estate to pass to the Michigan neighbor at her death.

A few days later, Neighbor Bill and others who knew Aurelia became concerned that they had not heard from or seen Aurelia. The police were called.  Aurelia was found in her home in her bathtub fully clothed.  It is unclear how long she had been in the tub, and she was taken to a hospital where a doctor evaluated her cognition and deemed her to be “profoundly confused.”

Aurelia was discharged from the hospital to a long term care facility where she lived the remainder of her life and died in August, 2013.

Also, it is important to note that in September 2011, Aurelia met with a second lawyer and executed a ladybird deed leaving her home to Michigan friend at her death. That deed was deemed invalid, and that decision was not appealed.  But the second lawyer also testified that as of September 2011, when Aurelia met with him, she had testamentary capacity.

And finally, the Portland friend, in contesting the validity of the will, employed an expert witness, a geriatric psychiatrist, who reviewed the Aurelia’s medical records and opined that Aurelia lacked testamentary capacity on January 24, 2011 (the date of the will) and for every day thereafter.

After receiving all of this testimony, the trial court admitted the 2011 as valid on summary disposition, and the Portland friend appealed.

So, to sum it up, besides the presumably self-serving testimony of the parties themselves:

  • There are two lawyers who met with Aurelia and who testified that Aurelia had testamentary capacity in January 2011 and in September 2011.
  • There is a police report that indicates that Aurelia’s home was reasonably maintained in mid-2010.
  • There is an uninterested fact witness, Neighbor Bill, who testified as to Aurelia having clear signs of cognitive impairment before the 2011 will was executed, and that Aurelia became severely agitated and confused on the very date she signed the will, leading to hospitalization a few days later.
  • There is the evidence that the Michigan friend, a fact witness who seeks to have the will upheld, cannot dispute, which is that she was helping Aurelia with her daily activities, including her finances, before the will was signed.
  • There is a medical opinion from four days after the will was signed, when Aurelia was in the hospital, that she was demented and severely confused.
  • There is an expert opinion that she lacked testamentary capacity on the date the will was signed.

Indeed it is difficult to understand how a trial judge would think that, with all this evidence, this case could be decided on summary disposition. And you will not be surprised to learn that the Court of Appeals reversed that order and remanded the case for trial.  But this case illustrates some important points about how these cases can be viewed at the trial court level, and what witnesses carry the most weight, including:

(1) Trial judges often place great weight on the testimony of the lawyers they know. Capacity is, after all, a legal question and lawyers who regularly prepare estate plans are considered experts in evaluating whether their clients meet the standards of testamentary capacity.

(2) Capacity is presumed. The burden is on the contestant to overcome the presumption of capacity.  In any case where there is a lawyer who prepared the document, this presumption and the testimony of an experienced estate planning attorney, carries great weight.

(3) Testamentary capacity is a low standard.

(4) The “lucid moment” concept is far from dead. Even though Aurelia was deemed incompetent only a few days after the execution of the will, and even though she spent those few intervening days in a confused and agitated state, and even though there is ample evidence of age-related cognitive decline even before the will was signed, the trial judge presumably had no problem concluding that she was clear and coherent at the moment she signed the will, as her attorney testified.

These are the types of witnesses that often exist in lack of capacity/undue influence cases. What we can take away from this example, I think, is that challenging documents prepared by an experienced lawyer is tough sledding, but can be accomplished.  As in this case, expert opinions have become standard practice, and are often critical to surviving summary disposition.  Solid testimony from an uninterested fact witness can also be very valuable.  And, as I have suggested before, surviving summary disposition is often the first objective.  When a case is heading to a jury, the parties each face significant risk and the possibility of settlement increases accordingly.

The Awesome Power of Constructive Trust

 

Mom made the house joint with son, rights of survivorship. Now Mom, in her demented state, tells the court that, when she did it, she thought her son would share the house with his siblings after she died.  The court uses that testimony to void the deed, citing the equitable remedy of constructive trust.  The Court of Appeals upholds that decision.

This new unpublished case is In Re Guardianship and Conservatorship of Dorothy Redd (click on the name to read the case).  You might recognize the name.  This is a second appeal arising from the same file.  The first resulted in a published decision, and is addressed in my prior post Seeing Redd (click on the name to read that prior post), a case which offers an important rule about fiduciary removal for interference with family relations.

Constructive Trust is a remedy, which also can be pled as a cause of action. I plead it all the time.  To me, constructive trust is the Hail Mary of probate court litigation.  In the grey world of family exploitation cases, if all else fails, ask the court “to do the right thing.”  Who knows, it might just work?  It worked in this case.

Let’s review:

When Mom was competent, she deeded the house to herself and her son as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Now she says that at the time, her express intent was that when her son received the property at her death, that he would share the proceeds with his other siblings.  There is apparently no, or insufficient, evidence to attack the deed for lack of capacity, undue influence or duress.  And there is apparently also no, or insufficient, evidence to impose an oral trust on the property (that is, no evidence that son made representations to mom that caused her to believe he was accepting the deed based on the agreement that he would share the proceeds with his siblings).

But the court decided that it simply wouldn’t be fair for son to keep the house, and voided the deed by exercising its equitable powers of constructive trust.

The Outer Bounds of Equity

Even in the wide-open range of equity, constructive trust is an anomaly, seemingly untethered by any evidentiary requirement.

It’s one thing to invoke equity by saying: “I took care of the old geezer for twenty years based on the promise that I would get compensated from his estate, and I wouldn’t have continued to do the work if I had known that he was leaving me nothing.” In those cases, the fact that the contract wasn’t in writing, or the terms were uncertain, can be remedied through equity (quantum meruit or unjust enrichment).  That’s equity, but at least there are some rules.  In those cases, the claimant has to prove that they would not have provided the care ‘but for’ the promise of compensation.

Constructive Trust doesn’t require anything so firm. It simply requires convincing the trial court that the outcome isn’t fair.  The leading case on constructive trust is the 1958 case of Kent v Klein, 352 Mich 652, 656; 91 NW2d 11. Kent is cited extensively in this Redd case, and those quotes demonstrate just how loose the parameters are:

A constructive trust may be imposed whenever “the circumstances under which property was acquired make it inequitable that it should be retained by him who holds the legal title. Constructive trusts have been said to arise through the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel, or under the broad doctrine that equity regards and treats as done what in good conscience ought to be done.”

As Spiderman’s uncle once said: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  So, for argument’s sake, let’s read between the lines of this decision.

In the first Redd case, this same son was removed as guardian because the trial court found that he was actively undermining the relationships between his demented mother and her other children, his siblings.  So, he was already the bad guy in this court when the questions at issue in this appeal arose.  In this appeal, his accountings are disallowed, he is removed as beneficiary of a life insurance policy his mother established on her life, and the deed leaving him her home is voided.

One explanation is that he really is the bad guy and had a hand in the getting mom to execute the deed. But if those were the facts, as discussed above, the contestants would have had legal grounds to attack the deed: duress and undue influence.  That evidence, presumably, didn’t exist.

Remember also that the testimony about what mom believed or intended at the time she created the deed, comes from a demented woman who is no doubt being influenced by the people around her; and since her son’s removal as guardian, should we assume those people are the other siblings? How much weight should be given to her current memories of what she did some years earlier?  Also, the COA opinion mentions only in an off-handed way that, in explaining her decision to execute the deed, mom states that at least part of her motivation was that her son had made improvements to the house.

So, the other possible perspective is that maybe son is the good kid. Maybe his siblings didn’t have a lot to do with mom, but lawyered up when they realized they were getting cut out.  Maybe he had reasons for his keeping the other kids away from mom, although perhaps he was too strident in how he did it.  Maybe he is the only one who cared.  I don’t know.  But I suspect the story is richer than this opinion reveals.

Conclusion

I’m not saying this case is wrongly decided, I’m just saying it’s grey – it’s always grey; and unleashing unfettered equitable powers in these cases is dicey.

Speaking of which, I have an article coming out on this very topic.  It will be in the February edition of the Michigan Bar Journal.  It’s called: Best Practices for Family Exploitation Cases.  If you are so inclined, give it a read, and I hope you find it worthwhile.

Capacity to Nominate

The question is this: When a person who is the subject of a petition for guardianship or conservatorship nominates an individual they want to serve in those capacities, to what extent is the court required to grant the nominated individual a priority of appointment?  A new unpublished opinion discusses that question, and while I think the opinion falls short in some respects, the issue comes up routinely in contested guardianship and conservatorship matters and this case offers the opportunity to delve into the law.  So here we go:

Let’s start with the law.

MCL 700.5313(2) provides the order of appointment for a guardianship. Its relevant provisions say:

(2) In appointing a guardian under this section, the court shall appoint a person, if suitable and willing to serve, in the following order of priority:

(a) A person previously appointed, qualified, and serving in good standing as guardian for the legally incapacitated individual in another state.

(b) A person the individual subject to the petition chooses to serve as guardian.

(c) A person nominated as guardian in a durable power of attorney or other writing by the individual subject to the petition.

(d) A person named by the individual as a patient advocate or attorney in fact in a durable power of attorney.

For a conservatorship the relevant language is in MCL 700.5409(1), which says:

(1) The court may appoint an individual, a corporation authorized to exercise fiduciary powers, or a professional conservator described in section 5106 to serve as conservator of a protected individual’s estate. The following are entitled to consideration for appointment in the following order of priority:

(a) A conservator, guardian of property, or similar fiduciary appointed or recognized by the appropriate court of another jurisdiction in which the protected individual resides.

(b) An individual or corporation nominated by the protected individual if he or she is 14 years of age or older and of sufficient mental capacity to make an intelligent choice, including a nomination made in a durable power of attorney.

These provisions are similar, but importantly different:

While both statutes provide that, unless someone has already been appointed to serve as guardian or conservator by another state, the highest priority goes the person nominated by the proposed ward. But in the guardianship context, the law provides that the court “shall appoint” the person with priority if they are suitable and willing to serve. In a conservatorship proceeding, the court “may appoint” and having a priority merely provides that such persons “are entitled to consideration.”

Interestingly, the conservatorship statute says that before considering a person nominated by the proposed ward, the court must find that the proposed ward “is of sufficient mental capacity to make an intelligent choice.” In the guardianship context there is no requirement that the proposed ward be capable of making a good choice.

The guardianship law also elevates the person nominated by the proposed ward at the hearing above a person previously nominated in a power of attorney or patient advocate designation. In the conservatorship context, those two forms of priority are equal.

For the record, both statutes are further buttressed by MCL 700.5106 which more specifically addresses the limitations placed on a court with respect to the appointment of a public fiduciary.

All three cited statutes are linked to the law, which can be read in their entirety by clicking on the statute.

Now let’s look at the case of  In Re Guardianship and Conservatorship of David P. VanPoppelen.  Click on the name to read the opinion.  Click here to read the concurrence/dissent which goes into an interesting issue about suitability, which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss in this post.

In this case, the proposed ward (“David”) nominated June to be his guardian and conservator.  He did so both in his power of attorney and patient advocate designation, and he did so when he was questioned by the court-appointed guardian ad litem.  But the trial court bypassed June by finding that the David was not competent to execute the patient advocate designation and power of attorney when they were executed, and further, the court says “He was similarly incompetent to informally select his fiduciary.”

So my complaint with this holding is that while I think the court was certainly within its power to invalidate a power of attorney and patient advocate designation based on a finding of lack of capacity at the time of execution; and to bypass June as conservator by finding, in accordance with MCL 700.5409, that David lacked the ability to “make an intelligent choice” at the time of his verbal nomination; because MCL 700.5313 (the guardianship law) does not include a provision that allows the court to make a verbal nomination contingent on the existing mental capacity of the proposed ward, to my thinking, June should have been given the priority in the guardianship matter.

In conclusion, although I think this court provided an imperfect analysis, I appreciate the opportunity to review the law as it relates to this important question.

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.

The Next BIG Thing in Michigan Trust Law

Legislation currently moving through Michigan’s House and Senate will, if passed, dramatically impact the world of trust law in Michigan, and especially the drafting of discretionary trusts. Indications are that there is a good chance this legislation will become law before the year end. And so …. it’s probably time to start thinking about it.

The new law alters the way that trusts agreements can be crafted with respect to the roles of trustees and other fiduciary and non-fiduciary parties involved in the administration of a trust. While the proposed law is Michigan’s adoption of the Uniform Directed Trust Act, it goes well beyond the Uniform Act, particularly with respect to the provisions related to separate trustees.  In fact, it is probably best to understand this new development as two distinct changes to the law: (1) Rules relating to use of separate trustees when drafting discretionary trusts, and (2) the elimination of the Trust Protector, and replacement of that office with the Trust Director.

Separate Trustees

The new law defines several new types of roles and relationships that can be used in drafting trusts.

The law uses the term “Separate Trustee” to identify one of three types of separate trustees that have discrete powers and duties. They are:

* Investment Trustee. A Trustee exclusively responsible for investing the trust assets.

* Distributions Trustee. A Trustee exclusively responsible for making discretionary distributions of trust assets.  Note: There is no provision for a distributions trustee with respect to non-discretionary interests.

* Resultant Trustee. The Trustee responsible for all actions not otherwise allocated to an investment or distribution trustee.

So Long Trust Protectors

In addition to the creating laws to support the use of separate trustees (discussed above), the new law introduces the term “Trust Director” which equates roughly to what many would have heretofore defined as a Trust Protector. The scope of powers that can be given to a Trust Director are broad and it is not necessary for the trust agreement to have appointed separate trustees for the agreement to implement the use of a Trust Director.  The MTC defined the term “Trust Protectors” when it came into being in 2010, which was an important development associated with that legislation.  But with these changes, that term is removed and no longer defined.  [It is unclear (to me) how Courts will construe this term going forward, and what rules will apply to trust protectors appointed in documents.  In many instances, the powers typically allocated to a trust protector would seemingly result in those persons falling within the scope of what is now defined as a “Trust Director.”]

The law also then introduces the term “directed trustee” to refer to a trustee who takes direction from a trust director.

It’s All About Liability

With respect to the separate trustee provisions of the law, the idea is that without collusion, a separate trustee is not responsible for the acts of another separate trustee. And this is really the central legal development that makes this aspect of the new law click.  Heretofore, you could draft trusts with co-trustees and give them each a discrete role in the administration of a trust – but you could not, thereby, allow one trustee to be non-liable for the breach of their fellow co-trustee.  Now, by using this approach, you can.

In the simplest example, what that means is that you can appoint a bank as the investment trustee, and appoint the trust beneficiary’s sibling as the distributions trustee, and neither will be responsible for the other’s foibles. That is true even if the bank knew or should have known that the sibling was engaged in a breach, and vice versa.  Again, the exception would be if the separate trustees were colluding with each other with respect to the inappropriate conduct.  This development will make it much easier to have professional investment companies assume trusteeships over the investments, where others are making decisions about discretionary distributions.

When a power is exercised in a fiduciary capacity and when it is not; when a trustee or trust director is subject to liability and when they are not; are all addressed in detail in the legislation.

Special Needs Planning and Discretionary Trusts

In no area of trust planning will these changes be more relevant than in the drafting of discretionary trusts. And while there are many discretionary trusts that are not special needs trusts, all special needs trusts are discretionary trusts. The complexity of discretionary trust drafting will increase significantly with the passage of these laws, as will the opportunities to be more creative in the drafting of such trusts.

“Keep it simple” has long been the mantra of drafting SNTs. It is well recognized that the more detailed an SNT, the more likely the document is to be reviewed and perhaps challenged by the government entities which provide benefits to the SNT beneficiary.  For “high end” SNT planners, this opportunity might be an exception to that rule. The ability to work with institutional investors may mandate the adoption of separate trustee provisions.

The idea that you will soon have new tools to allow financial institutions to manage the money in the SNT, while having the family members (or family lawyer) make the decisions about how resources are used to improve the quality of life of the beneficiary is huge, and a big reason SNT planners will need to carefully consider how this legislation will change their practices. As everyone in the SNT world knows, banks and other financial institutions have attempted to gain entry into the world of special needs planning, but they are inevitably ill-suited to mange the distribution decisions associated with taking on the role of trustee. This legislation provides a safe harbor approach which allows them to manage the money while taking them off the hook of doing the dirty work of special needs trust administration.

These new laws offer SNT planners an opportunity that in many instances will be too hard to pass up, but they come with requirement that special needs trust drafters elevate their games.  Dabblers in SNT drafting beware.

IF You Decide To Go There

The good news for some no doubt, is you don’t have to use separate trustees or trust directors or otherwise incorporate these options into your trust agreements. And in fact, most simple “will substitute” trusts wouldn’t need or benefit from such provisions.

But if you draft inter vivos irrevocable trusts, or draft any trusts that continue after death, you will want to consider the possible benefits of these new tools. If you do, you need to read the statute carefully, because there are a whole host of requirements that spell out what has to be express in the trust agreement, and a handful of rules that cannot be altered or negated by your drafting.

If you have used Trust Protectors in your documents in the past, or want to use the concept in the future, you will need to understand the term Trust Director, how it differs from a Trust Protector and what the rules are in terms of appointment, exculpation and scope of authority.

So for many, keeping it simple may be best. For others, the possibilities will be too intriguing.  At times, perhaps, the objectives of the client may demand separate trustee provisions, and it may be malpractice to draft agreements that are not sufficiently attentive to these new rules.

Conclusion

It’s been a wild ride since Michigan adopted the Michigan Trust Code in 2010. In the eight years since, we’ve seen dramatic additional developments to Michigan trust law, including domestic self-settled asset protection trusts and liberalized decanting rules. This is the next big thing.

Michigan’s own Jim Spica is a member of the Uniform Directed Trust Act Committee, and the primary author of Michigan’s proposed law. As with everything Jim touches, this legislation is thorough and thoughtful.  To read the legislation in its present form click on the following House Bill links:

HB 6129 (Relating to the provisions for Separate Trustees)

HB 6130 (Relating to the Provisions for Trust Directors)

HB 6131 (Corresponding changes to other provisions of EPIC and the MTC)

And if f you are really in love with this topic, click here to read the Uniform Act, which includes commentary. If you look you will see that Michigan’s law varies significantly in many substantive ways from the Uniform Act.

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.

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.