In a case before the Superior Court of Connecticut, a sister, acting in her capacity as trustee of the family trust, brought a summary process action for possession of two properties against her brother, a beneficiary of the trust, alleging that his original right or privilege to occupy the contested properties had been terminated. The trial court entered judgment for immediate possession of the subject properties in favor of the trustee. The Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed this ruling in a later court proceeding.
Since 2006, the contested properties had been held in trust by the family trust, which was created by the siblings’ father and funded with his assets upon his death that year. The trust instrument named the sister as the trustee of the family trust and clearly laid out her duties. The brother lived at the contested properties for almost his entire life, and provided physical care and support to his parents at the properties in the years before their death. While the brother provided care for his parents, he did not pay rent to them because no rent was requested. After his parents’ death, the brother remained in possession of the contested properties, and did not pay rent or other monies to the trust. The trust paid all the real estate taxes, insurance bills and most utility bills for the properties. The sister alleged that the brother engaged in negative behaviors that prevented her from properly managing the properties as trustee. Such alleged behaviors included preventing an insurance company representative from inspecting the premises, which resulted in the loss of insurance on the property, and denying her access to the properties. She also alleged that her brother was unwilling to cooperate with her relocation to a portion of the property and to conduct repairs to another portion of the property so that it could be rented out to generate income for the trust.
According to Connecticut law, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47a-23(a)(3), the essential elements of a summary process action are: (1) the plaintiff is the owner of the property; (2) the defendant originally had a right or privilege to occupy the premises but such right or privilege has terminated; (3) the plaintiff caused proper notice to quit possession to be served on the defendant to vacate the premises on or before a certain date; and (4) although the time given the defendant to vacate in the notice to quit possession has passed, the defendant remains in possession of the premises. The general burden of proof in a civil action is on the plaintiff, who must prove all the essential elements of the cause of action by a fair preponderance of the evidence. Upon reviewing the facts of the case, the trial court determined that that the trust was the legal owner of the contested properties, the actions that the sister took related to the summary process action were within her powers as trustee, and that she had established all the remaining essential elements of her case by a fair preponderance of the evidence.
The brother asserted several special defenses related to the nature of the family trust: (1) the intent of the grantors was to allow him to remain in possession of the subject premises during his lifetime; (2) as a trust beneficiary in current possession of the premises, he is co-owner of the premises and not subject to a summary process action; (3) his beneficial interest in the trust generally equates to an equitable interest in the individual assets of the premises as part of the trust estate; and (4) a constructive trust should be imposed on the premises based on the grantor’s promise that he could remain in possession for his lifetime and his sister would be unjustly enriched if he were to be dispossessed from the premises. Defendants have the burden of proving the allegations in their special defenses by a fair preponderance of the evidence.
According to Connecticut case law, a court’s role is to determine the meaning of what the grantor stated in the trust instrument and to not speculate upon what the grantor intended to state in the instrument. Connecticut Bank & Trust Co. v. Lyman, 148 Conn. 273, 278-79, 170 A.2d 130 (1961). Expressed intent must control the court’s interpretation of the instrument. Therefore, the plain language of the trust instrument itself, rather than extrinsic evidence of actual intent, is determinative of the grantors’ intent. Cooley v. Cooley, 32 Conn.App. 152, 159, cert. denied, 228 Conn. 901 (1993) (citing Heffernan v. Freedman, 177 Conn. 476, 481, 418 A.2d 895 (1979). Because the court found nothing within the plain language of the trust supported the brother’s proposition that the grantors intended for him to remain in possession of the contested properties during his lifetime, the court found that brother failed to establish his first special defense.
Connecticut case law further establishes that the trustee holds legal title and legal ownership of the property in the trust. Fandacone v. Fandacone, Superior Court Judicial District of New Britain, Housing Session, Docket No. NBSP-052634 (March 16, 2010, Gilligan, J.). A beneficiary of the trust enjoys only a beneficial interest in trust assets. Despite the beneficial or equitable interest that a beneficiary may hold in the trust estate, this does not equate to legal or equitable title to the individual assets of the trust. Stepney Pond Estates, Ltd. v. Monroe, 260 Conn. 406, 433 n. 28 (2002). Therefore, the court found that the brother failed to establish his second and third special defenses.
A constructive trust arises where an individual who holds title to a property is subject to an equitable duty to convey it to another on the grounds that he would be unjustly enriched if he were permitted to retain the property. See Filosi v. Hawkins, 1 Conn.App. 634, 639 (1984); Gulack v. Gulack, 30 Conn.App. 305, 311-12 (1993). A constructive trust may also be imposed to prevent the abuse of a confidential relationship. Schmaling v. Schmaling, 48 Conn.App. 1, 13, cert. denied, 244 Conn. 929 (1998). In order to find that a constructive trust exists and should be imposed, the court must first find that a special or confidential relationship existed between the parties. Id. In Connecticut, two types of confidential relationships give rise to a constructive trust: (1) where one party is under the domination of another and (2) where circumstances justify one party’s belief that the other party’s actions will be guided by his or her welfare or instructions. See Riccio v. Riccio, 75 Conn.App. 556, 559 (2003); Starzec v. Kida, 183 Conn. 41, 43 n. 1 (1981). The court found that the brother did not establish clear and satisfactory facts from which a constructive trust may be implied. He did not establish that his sister, in her capacity as trustee, had an equitable duty to convey the contested properties to him. The trust instrument did not dictate that the brother’s individual welfare was not the sole focus of the family trust; instead, the instrument dictated that the sister’s fiduciary duties as trustee extended to all trust beneficiaries. The brother did not establish that his sister, in any capacity, misappropriated or attempted to misappropriate trust assets. Finally, the brother did not establish that his sister, as an individual, would be unjustly enriched if the family trust were to regain possession of the contested properties. The sister would still be bound by the trust instrument, and the brother would still retain his recourse to legal action to safeguard his rights as a trust beneficiary. Therefore, the court found that the brother failed to establish his fourth special defense.
Because the court found that the sister had established the essential elements of her cause of action with a preponderance of the evidence and that the brother failed to establish any special defense, the court entered judgment for immediate possession of the subject properties in favor of the sister, acting in her capacity as the trustee of the family trust.
Should you have any questions relating to trusts, real property or personal asset protection issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Susan Maya, at SMaya@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at RSweeting@Mayalaw.com or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Dudek v. Dudek, HDSP-150182, 2011 WL 767790 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 9, 2011) aff’d, 136 Conn. App. 902, 44 A.3d 222 (2012)