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Trustee Interpretation of Ambiguous Trust Provisions will not be Changed by a Court Without Evidence of a Clear Abuse of Trustee Discretion

Trustee Interpretation of Ambiguous Trust Provisions will not be Changed by a Court Without Evidence of a Clear Abuse of Trustee Discretion

Heath v. Heath, CV094044709S, 2012 WL 2477953 (Conn. Super. Ct. June 5, 2012)

In a recent case before the Superior Court, four trust beneficiaries filed a three-part complaint against the trustees of a trust created by their mother. The complaint alleged breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, and other charges. The trial court ruled that the trustees had properly distributed the trust interests and entered judgment in their favor.

In 1953, a trust indenture known as the Hembdt Trust was drafted with assets consisting of royalty interests in oil, gas and mineral rights. During her lifetime, the settlor and beneficiary of this trust (“the decedent”) married and had ten children. Upon her death, the terms of the trust provided that the royalty interests would pass to “his or her legal representatives, heirs at law or next of kin in accordance with the provisions of law applicable to the domicile of the deceased beneficiary.” In 1967, the decedent died. Pursuant to her will, several testamentary trusts were created, including a testamentary trust for the benefit of her husband (“marital trust”) and a trust for her children (“children’s trust”). The trustees and executors of the decedent’s will determined that the provision in the Hembdt Trust required the trust’s royalty interests to pass into her estate which, in accordance with her will, resulted in these interests being distributed in a 54/46 ratio between the marital trust and the children’s trust.

The beneficiaries of the children’s trust argued that the entirety of the royalty interest should have been distributed to them as the decedent’s heirs at law because the term “legal representatives” in the Hembdt Trust provision, used under the circumstances provided, could only be interpreted to mean the children of the decedent. The decedent’s husband, in his capacity as a fiduciary of the trusts, argued that the beneficiaries’ interpretation was inconsistent with the language of the trust instrument and the law. He argued that the term “legal representatives” was used in conjunction with “heirs at law” and “next of kin;” therefore, the clear intent of the Hembdt Trust provision was that upon the death of the individual beneficiary, his or her interest would pass to: (1) the beneficiary’s legal representatives, which would be the beneficiary’s executors, if the person died testate, to be administered according to the beneficiary’s will, or the beneficiary’s administrators, if the person died intestate and a probate estate was opened; (2) the beneficiary’ heirs at law if the person died intestate and no probate estate was opened; and (3) the beneficiary’s next of kin if there were no heirs at law. The decedent’s husband further argued that if all three conditions existed, then the distributions would have to be in accordance with Connecticut law, which requires that, when a decedent leaves both a spouse and children, they both inherit. Finally, the decedent’s husband argued that Connecticut law requires that if a decedent leaves a will, a distribution is made according to the will. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 45a-431. The remaining trustees adopted the arguments of the decedent’s husband.

According to Connecticut case law, a court’s role in the construction of a trust instrument is to determine the meaning of what the grantor stated in the trust instrument and not to 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). Language in the trust instrument is to be accorded its common, natural and ordinary meaning and usage. WE 470 Murdock, LLC v. Cosmos Real Estate, LLC, 109 Conn.App. 605, 609, 952 A.2d 106, cert. denied, 289 Conn. 938, 958 A.2d 1248 (2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). Furthermore, no language will be construed as to remove a trustee from equitable control; courts may intervene only to protect and preserve the trust in circumstances where the trustees have abused their discretion. Gimbel v. Bernard F. & Alva B. Gimbel Foundation, Inc., 166 Conn. 21, 34, 347 A.2d 81 (1974)

Connecticut case law has established that the phrase “legal representatives” in a testamentary instrument is an ambiguous or equivocal term. Smith v. Groton, 147 Conn. 272, 274–75, 160 A.2d 262 (1960). In interpreting the trust provisions, the court determined that the language did not permit the decedent’s beneficial interest to pass to each of the three categories (“legal representatives, heirs at law and next of kin”) or to pass to different recipients depending on an exercise of discretion (“legal representatives, or heirs at law, or next of kin”). For that reason, the court found that the terms “legal representatives,” “heirs at law,” and “next of kin” did not conflict and that the provision required that the decedent’s beneficial interest pass to the recipients in the order clearly listed the trust instrument. Therefore, the trustees did not abuse their discretion in determining that the royalty interests passed to the executors, as the decedent’s legal representatives, to be distributed to the marital trust and children’s trust in accordance with the decedent’s will.

Because the trial court did not find that the trustees of the decedent’s trusts abused their discretion, the court refused to upset their determination of how the decedent’s interests should be distributed.

Should you have any questions relating to wills, 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.

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