Property Conveyance May Satisfy the Statute of Frauds Requirement to Create a Trust
Ciccaglione v. Stewart, CV074008040, 2012 WL 671933 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 8, 2012)
In a recent case before the Connecticut Superior Court, two daughters sought a declaratory judgment as to the validity of an unsigned document purporting to be their deceased mother’s trust agreement and quiet title to a contested piece of real estate. The daughters contended that the trustees held the contested property in fee simple; therefore, the real estate was not part of the mother’s estate to be distributed in accordance with her will. The trial court concluded that the trust was validly created and the contested real property was a trust asset.
The original executed copy of the mother’s 2004 trust agreement could not be found after her death. Two of her daughters sought a court judgment declaring that an unsigned copy of their mother’s trust agreement created a valid and enforceable inter vivos trust, They contended that an irrevocable trust had been created in August 2004 when their mother executed and recorded the warranty deed that conveyed the contested property to the trust because the conveyance and circumstances surrounding it manifested their mother’s clear intent to create that trust. The remaining heirs denied these allegations and raised several special defenses, including that the unsigned trust agreement did not comply with the Statute of Frauds, that the deed was invalid, that one or both of the daughters exerted undue influence over their mother and that their mother lacked capacity when she created the trust.
The requisite elements of a valid and enforceable trust are: (1) a trustee, who holds the trust property and is subject to duties to deal with it for the benefit of one or more others; (2) one or more beneficiaries, to whom and for whose benefit the trustee owes the duties with respect to the trust property; and (3) trust property, which is held by the trustee for the beneficiaries. Goytizolo v. Moore, 27 Conn.App. 22, 25, 604 A.2d 362 (1992). According to the Restatement of Trusts, if the owner of property declares himself to be the trustee of the property or transfers it “in trust” for a named person, such writing sufficiently demonstrates the purpose of the trust to satisfy the writing requirement of the Statute of Frauds. Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 46 cmt. (a) (1959).
The daughters alleged that the August 2004 warranty deed conveying the contested property to their mother’s inter vivos trust satisfied the Statute of Frauds because it set forth the trust property, the beneficiaries and the purpose of the trust with reasonable definiteness. Because the warranty deed transferred the property from the mother individually to the inter vivos trust, it was as if the property was transferred “in trust” for a named person and the warranty deed was a declaration of a passive trust. They also contended that because the mother signed the warranty deed as trustee, she was declaring herself to be the trustee of the property for the beneficiaries of the inter vivos trust. Although the court concluded that the execution of the warranty deed by itself funded rather than created the inter vivos trust, the court also concluded that the warranty deed was sufficient evidence to satisfy the Statute of Frauds. The deed was a writing signed by the mother demonstrating that she manifested an intent to create the trust and impose the duty of a trustee upon herself. Additional testimony from witnesses at the trial supported the court’s conclusion that the mother executed the trust agreement, along with her will and the warranty deed, in August 2004 as part of her overall testamentary plan and that unsigned copy of the trust agreement submitted by the two daughters was a true copy of the agreement which established the terms of the agreement.
The heirs contesting the trust alleged that the August 2004 warranty deed conveying the contested property to the mother’s inter vivos trust was invalid because the deed named the trust rather than the trustee as the grantee of the property. According to the Connecticut Standards of Title, a grantee of real property must be in existence and have capacity to take and hold legal title to land at the time of the conveyance. A trust does not have such capacity: the trustee, or other fiduciary of the trust, is the appropriate grantee. See Connecticut Bar Association, Connecticut Standards of Title (1999), standard 7.1, comments 1 and 4. Connecticut law, however, provides that deeds with certain defects are considered to be valid unless an action challenging the deed and a lis pendens are recorded in the town land records within two years of recording the defective instrument. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47-36aa(a). This statute covers defective deeds made to grantees that are not recognized by law as having the capacity to take or hold an interest in real property. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 47-36aa(a)(4). Because the heirs contesting the trust did not file an action challenging the validity of the deed within two years of its recording, the trial court concluded that the August 2004 warranty deed had been validated by the operation of the statute, which confirmed the conveyance to the grantee and any subsequent transfers of the interest by the grantee to any subsequent transferees.
The heirs contesting the trust alleged that the trust was void because one or both of the two daughters seeking to enforce the trust exerted undue influence over their mother during its making. Undue influence is the exercise of sufficient control over a person in an attempt to destroy his free agency and constrain him to do something other than what he would do under normal circumstances. Connecticut case law sets out four elements necessary for a finding of undue influence: (1) a person who is subject to influence, (2) an opportunity to exert undue influence, (3) a disposition to exert undue influence, and (4) a result indicating undue influence. Gengaro v. New Haven, 118 Conn.App. 642, 649–50, 984 A.2d 1133 (2009) (internal quotations omitted); see also Dinan v. Marchand, 279 Conn. 558, 560, fn.1 (2006). The heirs contesting the trust argued that their mother was susceptible to undue influence because of her medical condition and fear of being placed in a nursing home. They also alleged that one or both of the daughters who were seeking to enforce the trust were in a position to influence her because they had medical and financial control over their mother. At least one of the two daughters, who was the oldest female in a family of eleven, had the disposition to exert such influence. Finally, they argued that the terms of the trust revealed the extent of that influence because the terms benefitted the daughters seeking to enforce the trust. However, based on the testimony of witnesses at trial, the court concluded that the mother was not under any undue influence when she executed the trust and other testamentary documents in August 2004.
Finally, the heirs contesting the trust argued that the trust agreement was void due to their mother’s lack of capacity. Specifically, they argued that there was evidence that their mother did not understand the terms of the trust agreement because when she later wanted to sell the contested property, she discovered that she could not. The mother had medical and neurological conditions, including a stroke in 2003 and terminal cancer in 2006; therefore, she was preoccupied with her health and was concerned about being placed in a nursing home. Furthermore, she loved all of her children and wanted them to be treated equally and fairly, but the terms of the trust are unfair to some of the beneficiaries.
Capacity to make a trust is the same as the capacity to make a will or other testamentary instrument. Connecticut statutory law generally requires that at testator be “any person eighteen years of age or older, and of sound mind.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 45a-250. Case law establishes the test for testamentary capacity as “whether the testator had mind and memory sound enough to know and understand the business upon which he was engaged at the time of execution.” City National Bank and Trust Co.’s Appeal, 145 Conn. 518, 521, 144 A.2d 338 (1958). Testamentary capacity is assessed at the time the instrument is executed, and not on the testator’s ability years later to remember the contents of the instrument. Therefore, based on testimony from several witness at trial, the court concluded that the mother had sufficient testamentary capacity to create an enforceable inter vivos trust at the same time she created her other testamentary documents. Furthermore, the mother’s expressed wishes were to preserve her property for her children and grandchildren; the court concluded that the trust was the most plausible legal means to carry out these wishes.
The trial court concluded that the trust was validly created and the contested real property was a trust asset. Therefore, the unsigned copy of the trust was an expression of the intent of the mother, in her capacity as grantor, and was a valid and enforceable trust instrument.
Should you have any questions relating to trusts, estates and other 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.