Posts tagged with "trust assets"

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

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 or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.

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

Property Conveyance May Satisfy the Statute of Frauds Requirement to Create a Trust

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 or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.

Ciccaglione v. Stewart, CV074008040, 2012 WL 671933 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 8, 2012)

Trustees May Be Liable in their Own Person and Estate for Failure to Comply with IRS Notices of Levy Issued against Trust Beneficiaries

In a recent case before the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the United States government commenced an action against a trustee in order to collect unpaid federal taxes owed by the trust beneficiary. The District Court granted the government’s summary judgment motion and found the trustee liable for unpaid federal taxes plus interest.

In 1995, the beneficiary’s mother died.  Pursuant to her will, the majority of her estate was left to be held in trust, and administered, managed, invested and reinvested by the trustee as set forth in the will.  The relevant provision of the will directed the trustee to pay her son, the sole beneficiary of the trust, at least $1,000 per month, but not more than 60-percent of the net income of the trust.  The same provision also provided the trustee with sole discretion to pay trust principal to her son as necessary for the comfortable “maintenance, support, health, education and well being” of her son, and his two sons.  In February 1996, the trustee was issued letters of trusteeship for the trust created by the will.

In April 1996, the trustee was informed by his attorney by letter that the son owed the federal government for various taxes totaling $246,579.  The attorney additionally informed the trustee that whatever income was going to the son, regardless of the source, must go first to the creditor.  In June 1996, the trustee was served with an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Notice of Levy and Notice of Federal Tax Lien. The Notice of Levy listed federal income tax liabilities and civil penalties that the son owed to the IRS for tax years 1979 through 1989.  The notice further stated that the levy required the trustee to turn over to the IRS “this person’s property and rights to property (such as money, credits and bank deposits) that you have or which you are already obligated to pay this person.”  In either 2000 or 2001, the trustee was directed by his new attorney to make distributions from the trust to the son because the IRS had been satisfied.  The trustee did not see the paperwork documenting satisfaction of the IRS levy and signed blank checks to permit the attorney to draw on the trust account for the son.  The government then commenced action against the trustee to collect the son’s delinquent tax liability through the judicial enforcement of the IRS levy.

The IRS has two principal tools to collect delinquent taxes.  The first is a lien foreclosure suit, brought pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 7403(a).  The other is the issuance of a levy upon all property and rights to property belonging to the delinquent taxpayer, pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6331(a).  Where the taxpayer’s property is being held by another, the notice of levy is customarily served upon the custodian of the property pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6332(a).  Serving the notice on the custodian creates a custodial relationship between the person holding the property and the IRS so that the property comes into constructive possession of the government.  If the custodian fails or refuses to surrender the property or rights to property subject to the levy, the custodian becomes liable in his own person and estate to the government in the sum equal to the value of what he failed to surrender.  26 U.S.C. § 6332(d)(1).

Pursuant to New York law, the plain language of the trust instrument must be analyzed in order to determine a trust beneficiary’s property rights in trust income or principal.  The Second Circuit has held that a beneficiary has a property interest in trust income when the trust instrument sets out the trustee’s duty to pay income in mandatory terms.  Magavern v. United States, 550 F.2d 797, 801 (2d Cir.1977).  Therefore, when the trustee is required to make a payment of trust income to a beneficiary, even when the amount and timing of the mandatory income distribution are left to the trustee’s discretion, the trust beneficiary has a property right in trust income that is subject to a tax levy.

In the instant case, because the trustee’s duty pay out a certain amount of trust income was set forth in mandatory terms, the beneficiary had a right to property in the trust income, and the government tax levy could attach to this right.  However, the will did not require the trustee to pay trust principal to the beneficiary.  The terms of the trust left decisions with respect to the trust principal entirely to the trustee’s discretion.  Therefore, the beneficiary had no attachable right to property in the trust principal until the trustee decided to make a distribution of such principal to him.  The District Court concluded that the beneficiary had some property rights to both the trust income and that portion of the trust principal, if any, that was distributed to him.  These rights to property were in the possession of the trustee, and it was undisputed under the facts of the case that the trustee did not surrender any levied property to the IRS in compliance with 26 U.S.C. § 6332(a).  Therefore, the trustee could be liable in his own person and estate to the government under 26 U.S.C. § 6332(d)(1).

A custodian of property or rights to property that are subject to an IRS levy has only two defenses to avoid liability in his own person and estate.  The first available defense is that the trustee is neither in possession of nor obligated with respect to the property or rights to property belonging to the delinquent taxpayer.  26 U.S.C. § 6332(a).  The second available defense is that the taxpayer’s property or rights to property at issue are subject to attachment or execution under a judicial process.  Id. In the instant case, the first defense was not applicable because, pursuant to the terms of the will, the trustee was both obligated to pay the beneficiary certain amounts of trust income at given intervals and empowered to make discretionary distributions.  The trustee made no suggestion that the second defense was applicable. The absence of intentional or negligent conduct is not relevant as to whether an enforcement action may be maintained against the custodian; therefore, good faith could not absolve the trustee of liability for his failure to comply with his statutory obligations to surrender property pursuant to a valid IRS Notice of Levy.  Therefore, the District Court found that the trustee could not avoid liability for his actions under either of the two statutorily available defenses.

The District Court determined that the government established as a matter of law that the trustee failed to honor the Notice of Levy served on the trust beneficiary in June 1996 by improperly distributing estate assets to the trust beneficiary after the date of the levy.  However, the court also held that the trustee was liable for less than the judgment amount requested by the government, but the court permitted the government to submit a supplemental briefing as to its entitlement to additional estate money to which the trust beneficiary had a property right.

Should you have any questions relating to trusts or other personal asset protection issues, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Susan Maya, at or 203-221-3100, and Attorney Russell Sweeting, at or 203-221-3100, in the Maya Murphy office in Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut.

United States v. Michel, 08 CV 1313 DRH WDW, 2012 WL 3011124 (E.D.N.Y. July 23, 2012)