Posts Tagged ‘breach of fiduciary duty’

Deceased Trustee Not Liable for Punitive Damages in Kansas Case

NOVEMBER 21, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 44
When Alain Ellis died in 2007, she left about $2 million dollars in a trust. Her husband Harvey was the trustee of the trust, and entitled to receive all of the trust’s income. Upon his death the remaining trust assets would be distributed among her two sons and her granddaughter. That’s not how it turned out, however.

After Alain’s death Harvey removed almost all of the trust’s assets and put them into his own trust. He hired a new attorney in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas; with the help of that new attorney, he modified his trust four more times. When he died in 2011, he was worth about $10 million, and his trust distributed to religious and educational charities.

A court-ordered investigation into the history of the two trusts quickly led to a transfer of assets from Harvey’s trust back into his late wife’s trust. The successor trustees agreed that Harvey had improperly taken at least $1,431,143,45 from Alain’s trust, and that amount was returned.

The remainder beneficiaries of Alain’s trust then filed a lawsuit against Harvey’s estate, his trust, his successor trustee and the attorney who helped him set up his estate plan. The lawsuit claimed that Harvey’s behavior had been particularly egregious, that his attorney had helped him in his scheme to convert assets, and that the trust had been mismanaged after Alain’s death.

Alain’s heirs sought an imposition of double damages against Harvey (and his trust), citing Kansas law permitting the extra penalty. The trial judge, though, ruled that the claim was essentially one for “punitive damages,” and that a punitive damages claim could not be asserted against a dead man.

At trial, a jury awarded an additional $126,820.94 against Harvey’s estate and trust. The jurors decided that Harvey’s lawyer (while acting as successor trustee of Alain’s trust) had also committed breaches of her fiduciary duty, but they did not award any damages against her. The jurors exonerated Harvey’s successor trustee, a local bank. Alain’s heirs appealed, arguing that they should have been able to assert the claim for double damages, and that Harvey’s outrageous behavior should be punished.

The Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the trial court. In their opinion, the appellate judges acknowledged that “there is no doubt” that Harvey “acted toward plaintiffs with willful conduct and fraud that would have supported a claim against him for punitive damages had he still been alive at the time of the litigation.” Still, they reasoned, there is no real benefit to society permitting punishment of a deceased defendant. The Court of Appeals did uphold the trial courts award of attorneys fees against Harvey’s trust (although one claimant’s fees were ordered to be paid from Alain’s trust).

In reaching its conclusion that punitive damages could not be levied against a deceased defendant, the Kansas court discussed the holdings in other jurisdictions on similar questions. Most states addressing the question have agreed with the holding in Harvey’s case, according to a 2016 Akron Law Review article extensively cited in the opinion. A substantial minority of states (including at least thirteen states and the District of Columbia) would allow the claim to proceed against the estate of a deceased tortfeasor. Alain Ellis Living Trust v. Harvey D. Ellis Living Trust, November 18, 2016.

Does a claim for punitive damages survive against a deceased defendant in Arizona? Generally, yes. Arizona would likely reach the opposite conclusion in similar circumstances, though the principal Arizona appellate decision (Haralson v. Fisher Engineering, a 2011 Supreme Court opinion) is based on very different facts. In that case, the estate of a driver who behaved egregiously was liable for punitive damages claimed by an accident victim — despite the fact that the driver died in the accident.

Arizona law on attorney’s fees might also lead to a different result in similar facts. Recall that Harvey’s trust paid most of the fees of the various attorneys (though not those of one of the heirs — his fees were paid by his mother’s trust instead). In Arizona it might actually be more difficult to secure payment of those fees from the tortfeasor’s trust — even though the punitive damages claim might be easier to assert. In other words, the classic legal principle applies: facts matter, and so does the jurisdiction where the facts are litigated.

Court Sets Aside Agent’s Transfers to Self Using Power of Attorney

JUNE 13, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 22
John Richardson was 86, living on his family farm in rural Nebraska, when he became ill enough that he could no longer take care of himself. His long-time companion Elaine had been living with him and providing care, but she could no longer handle his care, either. John’s nephew Larry moved in to help with care.

As is our usual practice, the names of most of the principals in this story have been changed.

Within about a month of his arrival at the farm, Larry had been named as agent on a power of attorney signed by his uncle John and prepared by John’s long-time lawyer. The power of attorney included language allowing Larry to do anything John could have done for himself, “including but not limited to the power to make gifts.”

John had no children. He did have four nieces and nephews, including Larry. He had signed several wills over the years, each one leaving most of his property to his nieces and nephews and naming his attorney to be the personal representative of his estate. That was the status of his estate planning as of the time he gave a power of attorney to Larry.

As Larry took care of John, he learned from John’s companion Elaine about a brokerage account in John’s name. Larry used his power of attorney to get more information from the broker, and then used it again to liquidate the account. He transferred some of the account to John’s other nieces and nephews, and put one portion of the proceeds into his uncle’s checking account. He then used John’s checking account to pay some of his own bills.

Two months after that, Larry used his power of attorney again — this time to sign a deed transferring his uncle’s farm to himself and the other nieces and nephew. The transfer deed did retain a life estate for John.

At about the same time as the deed transferring the farmland, John’s companion Elaine moved out of the farmhouse. Several months later Larry was arrested and charged with abuse of a vulnerable adult and theft by deception.

Meanwhile, John contacted his attorney once again, and asked him to prepare a new will. This will left nothing to Larry or the other nieces and nephew; instead, the bulk of John’s estate would go to a charitable foundation.

Shortly after the new will was signed, John’s attorney decided that it would be better if he had not prepared John’s last will. Accordingly, he arranged for another attorney to meet alone with John, and prepare a second new will. That document substantially mirrored the other will, leaving the bulk of John’s estate to charity.

John died about a month later, and his last will was admitted to probate. As personal representative, his attorney sought return of the farm property and the brokerage account transferred by Larry. The probate court agreed with the attorney’s position, and ordered that a “constructive trust” be imposed on the properties for the benefit of John’s estate.

The Nebraska Court of Appeals reviewed the decision, and concurred. According to the appellate court, the key question was whether John’s power of attorney expressly authorized Larry to benefit himself. Since the general rule is that an agent may not transfer assets to himself, any evidence that Larry had done so would be viewed closely and could support a presumption of improper behavior by Larry.

Interestingly, the appeal was filed not by Larry but by John’s other nieces and nephew. They argued (among other things) that the presumption of breach of fiduciary duty by Larry did not apply to them — after all, they had not taken any steps to transfer anything to themselves, and should not be penalized as if they had done so. The Court of Appeals, however, was unimpressed by this argument, and upheld the probate court’s order reversing the transfers.

The appellate court also responded to John’s nephew and nieces’ argument that he was aware of the transfers signed by Larry, and did nothing about them. The fact of his knowledge (or lack of knowledge) was irrelevant, ruled the judges — the transfers exceeded Larry’s authority and were void regardless of John’s knowledge. Stehlik v. Rakosnik, May 17, 2016.

Since the events involved in John’s case, Nebraska has adopted a uniform multi-state law governing powers of attorney (the Uniform Power of Attorney Act). The Court of Appeals decision takes pains to note that it addresses only the general common law principles in place before the adoption of that Act, and the rules might now be different. The uniform law has now been adopted by almost half of the states (not including Arizona).

 

How to Get in Trouble for Your Handling of Your Child’s Money

JULY 6, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 25

Management of a trust can be difficult, and the responsibilities imposed on a trustee can be considerable. Sometimes that last part is not obvious, since trusts are often unsupervised — that is, no court is involved in the handling of most trusts, and there is no “trust cop” monitoring trustee decisions or expenditures. Even though there may not be immediate consequences, however, mishandling of a trust can lead to real problems for the trustee.

Handling any trust is a challenge. Let’s see if we can make it even more difficult:

  • If the beneficiary of the trust is a minor child, the trustee’s problems increase. Parents are expected to provide most of the support for their children, so the trustee should be looking to parents for expenditures before using trust funds. Does that mean the trust can not be used until the child reaches majority? No. The trustee must balance the current needs, the future expectations, and the ability (and, sometimes, the willingness) of parents to provide support.
  • Now let’s have a parent of the minor child act as trustee. The problems just got even more complicated. If the parent/trustee decides to use money from the trust for something that parents would ordinarily provide, does that mean that the parent/trustee is making the decision in his or her own interest? Perhaps — it’s at least enough of a problem to make trust administration more challenging.
  • Not content with that level of confusion, let’s add one more: the child who is a beneficiary of the trust also has special needs, will have very high future financial needs, and is currently receiving public benefits (like SSI payments, and/or Medicaid coverage). Everything just got more complicated again — the trustee’s decisions about distributions may well have consequences for those benefits, or for future care needs.
  • Difficult enough? Let’s add a final element: the trust is subject to the oversight of a court — we’ll call it the probate court (though that will not always be the court’s name). Now there are tax considerations for administration of the trust, the trustee’s choices (even when well-meaning) might be self-interested, trust language and/or distributions might have an effect on benefits eligibility and, as if all that were not enough, once a year the probate court will need to pass judgment on everything the trustee has done in the previous year.

That’s the background for a recent case that illustrates how things can go wrong. As it happens, this week’s case study does not actually involve a special needs trust (the money was held in a guardianship account — what we would call a conservatorship account in Arizona — subject to the court’s oversight) or a minor child (though the beneficiary was the disabled adult child of the person who got in trouble for mismanagement of the funds). In other words, the facts weren’t even as complicated as those sketched out above — and yet there were serious consequences.

What went wrong?

Sandra Ochoa (not her real name) was injured at birth. A medical malpractice case resulted in a substantial net settlement — part of which was used to purchase a structured settlement annuity that paid over $15,000 per month. A court in Illinois had approved the settlement and, after Sandra turned 18, the probate court appointed her mother Vivian as guardian of her estate (again, in Arizona we would call Vivian “conservator,” but the rules would be pretty much the same).

At the time of Vivian’s appointment, Sandra lived with her in her home in California. Vivian’s husband (Sandra’s stepfather) and Vivian’s son (Sandra’s brother) also lived in the home.

Two years later Vivian’s husband changed jobs, and the entire family moved to Florida. Vivian used Sandra’s money to make a down payment on a house in Florida, and then to make the monthly mortgage payments. She also paid herself a salary of several thousand dollars per month to take care of Sandra, and charged expenses related to her vehicle to Sandra’s funds, as well.

When Vivian filed her first annual accounting with the Illinois court, the judge raised questions about all the expenditures Vivian was making. Vivian prepared a proposed budget, under which she would pay herself $4,000 per month for caretaking, another $1,500 per month to a relief caregiver, about $1,000 per month for vehicle expenses, and $3,800 per month for the mortgage payment.

The probate court appointed someone to review Vivian’s accounting and her use of her daughter’s money. The report filed with the court noted that Vivian was using Sandra’s money to support not only Sandra, but the entire family. The court removed Vivian and appointed the public guardian (a government office in Illinois; not every state has a similar office) as the new guardian of Sandra’s estate. The public guardian then sued to recover money from Vivian. That process ultimately resulted in a $421,621.73 judgment against Vivian.

The Appellate Court of Illinois upheld the judgment after Vivian filed an appeal. Vivian argued that her job as guardian of Sandra’s estate should be to make Sandra’s life “as comfortable and pleasurable as possible.” The appellate court agreed with the probate judge: Vivian’s use of Sandra’s money was improper to the extent that it benefited other family members, and she is liable for repayment of the considerable sums expended. In Re Estate of O’Hare, June 11, 2015.

To be clear, Vivian was tagged for two different kinds of violations: she spent her daughter’s money on things that benefited other family members (including herself) at least as much as Sandra, and she kept poor records that made it difficult to support how she had spent the money. What could she have done differently to avoid getting in trouble?

  1. A conservator (or guardian of the estate, or trustee) must keep good records. This requirement can not be overemphasized.
  2. If a non-family guardian had been appointed from the beginning, some of the expenditures might have been approved after they had been reviewed by that guardian. Vivian’s obvious self-interest (in setting her own salary, deciding on housing costs, etc.) made it much more difficult to approve payments.
  3. Vivian should have asked for prior court approval for the kinds and amounts of payments she was making. Explaining how proposed expenditures would benefit Sandra would have given the probate judge a chance to ask questions, weigh in on the appropriate approach, appoint someone to represent Sandra’s interests (and/or to make home visits to determine what would be best for Sandra) and consider all the evidence and options.
  4. Most importantly, Vivian needed to understand that Sandra’s personal injury settlement — and the monthly annuity payments — were for Sandra’s benefit, not for hers or for any other family members’. Yes, it would be more convenient for Vivian if she could use those funds for housing, pay herself a salary and just focus on taking care of her seriously ill daughter. It’s not permissible, however.

Lawyer’s Move From Representing Widow to Estate is Problematic

OCTOBER 31, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 37
Floyd Spence, a Republican Congressman from South Carolina, was a long-time survivor of a heart-lung transplant and a (separate) kidney transplant when he died in 2001, at the age of 73. He was survived by his second wife, Deborah Spence, and four adult sons from his first marriage (his first wife had died in 1978).

As Congressman Spence lay dying in a Mississippi hospital, Mrs. Spence realized that she might need legal counsel to sort out what she would receive from his estate and his congressional life insurance policy. She consulted Kenneth B. Wingate, a prominent lawyer in Columbia, South Carolina. They discussed the fact that she had signed a prenuptial agreement prior to marrying Congressman Spence, that he had initially named her as one of five beneficiaries (along with her stepsons) on his $500,000 life insurance policy, and that she believed he had changed the beneficiary designation to name her alone.

Mr. Wingate advised Mrs. Spence that she should consider entering into an agreement with her stepsons about how the estate would be divided upon Congressman Spence’s death, since there were uncertainties arising from his two different wills, the beneficiary designation and her possible rights under South Carolina law. She agreed, and a settlement of any possible dispute was quickly negotiated and signed. Congressman Spence died, as it happened, the day after the settlement was finalized. The settlement provided for a trust, to be funded with one-third of Congressman Spence’s probate assets and paying its income to her for the rest of her life.

About two weeks later, Mr. Wingate visited Mrs. Spence and informed her that he had been retained to represent the Estate of her late husband. He did not tell her that there might be a conflict of interest in that representation, and he did not ask her to acknowledge any conflict or sign a waiver. In fact, he told her that she would no longer need separate counsel, since the possible conflicts had all been resolved.

Over the next few months Mrs. Spence began to think that she had made a bad bargain. She became convinced that she would have received more from either her husband’s last will or South Carolina’s laws providing for surviving spouses. At a family meeting with her four stepsons and Mr. Wingate, however, her former attorney suggested that she should forgo her right to receive the entire life insurance policy in order to make the boys “whole again.” She did not want to agree, arguing that they should not alter her late husband’s wishes.

After the family meeting Mrs. Spence called Mr. Wingate and asked him to put his hat back on as her attorney and counsel her about the life insurance proceeds. He declined but, according to her, he did not tell her that she ought to seek new counsel or take any steps to protect her interest in the life insurance.

About a year after the Congressman’s death, Mrs. Spence filed a lawsuit seeking to set aside the agreement Mr. Wingate had negotiated for her. He promptly withdrew from representation of the Estate. Eventually the court set aside the agreement.

Mrs. Spence then sued Mr. Wingate, arguing (among other things) that he had breached his fiduciary duty to her as a former client by taking on a new client with an adversarial position. Particularly she argued that Mr. Wingate breached his duties to her in connection with the life insurance policy.

The trial judge dismissed that part of her complaint. Since the estate did not have any interest in or right to the insurance proceeds, the judge decided, Mr. Wingate could not breach any duty to her with regard to the policy. The South Carolina Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. The possibility of a breach of fiduciary duty would depend on the evidence at trial, ruled the appellate judges. The case should be returned to the trial court for further proceedings to determine whether there was in fact a breach of duty.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has now rendered its opinion on Mr. Wingate’s duties to Mrs. Spence. The state’s high court agreed with the Court of Appeals that more facts are needed, but made clear that the existence (or non-existence) of a fiduciary duty is a question of law for the trial judge to decide. In other words, the dispute was returned to the trial court for further hearings, and with an instruction to the trial judge to make a finding about whether Mr. Wingate owed a fiduciary duty to Mrs. Spence with regard to the insurance proceeds. If the judge decides that a duty has been shown, then a jury can determine whether Mr. Wingate breached that duty. Spence v. Wingate, October 17, 2011.

The decision of the Supreme Court was not unanimous, incidentally. Two of the five justices would have found that no fiduciary duty existed with regard to the insurance policy, and would therefore have upheld the partial summary judgment originally granted by the trial judge.

Is there a broader lesson in this story? Let us guess that Mr. Wingate today wishes he had declined to take on representation of the Spence estate, and stayed available to counsel Mrs. Spence as to her rights and her agreement. He may ultimately be vindicated, but that will be a less desirable outcome than never having been accused of breaching his duty in the first instance.

Estate Planning: It Shouldn’t Be About the Lawyers

AUGUST 22, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 30
Of course it usually makes sense to place your estate planning wishes in the hands of your lawyer to make sure documents are correctly drawn and your wishes carried out. Lawyers can be very protective of what they perceive as their clients’ wishes and best interests, and sometimes that can even get in the way. Take, for instance, the will and trust of Missouri resident William R. Knichel.

Mr. Knichel had two grown children. He also had a 20-year relationship with Anita Madsen. In 2002, shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he signed a new will and powers of attorney. He named his children as his agents and left his entire estate to the two of them.

At about the same time Ms. Madsen began living with — and taking care of — Mr. Knichel. Two years later, he decided that he wanted to put her in charge of his finances and leave a significant portion of his estate to her. He transferred his home and one bank account into joint tenancy with her, and named her as beneficiary on his life insurance policy.

In 2004, Mr. Knichel and Ms. Madsen made an appointment with St. Louis attorney Charles Amen, of the law firm Purcell & Amen. Mr. Amen prepared a new will and powers of attorney, and a living trust. These documents named Ms. Madsen as personal representative, agent and trustee. The trust was intended to hold Mr. Knichel’s retirement assets, and to distribute them in three equal shares to his two children and Ms. Madsen.

One unusual provision in the trust document: Mr. Amen himself was named as “special co-trustee” with some specific powers. He was to make final decisions about distributions among the beneficiaries, to decide whether any beneficiaries could challenge Ms. Madsen’s administration or distribution decisions, and act as arbitrator if any disputes did arise. Then Mr. Amen and Ms. Madsen began the process of transferring Mr. Knichel’s retirement assets into the trust.

Among the accounts they tried to transfer to the trust was an IRA held at UBS Financial. For reasons not spelled out in the reported court opinion, UBS declined to change the IRA — even though Mr. Amen and Ms. Madsen made several attempts. When Mr. Knichel died a few months later, his children were still named as beneficiaries, rather than the trust.

Mr. Amen continued to work with Ms. Madsen to try to get UBS to change the beneficiary designation, but unsuccessfully. Ultimately UBS distributed the IRA account to the two children. Mr. Amen advised Ms. Madsen to simply make an equivalent distribution from the other trust assets to herself. She did that, and also paid herself a $6,000 fee as trustee and Mr. Amen’s fees of $2,400 for his representation of her as trustee.

In the three years after Mr. Knichel’s death, his children regularly requested a full accounting from Ms. Madsen and Mr. Amen. They did not receive complete information and so, in 2007, they filed suit against Ms. Madsen and Mr. Amen. They specifically sought removal of Mr. Amen and his firm as special co-trustee, arguing that there were multiple conflicts of interest in acting in that capacity while also representing Ms. Madsen, and that Mr. Amen had breached a fiduciary duty to treat the trust’s beneficiaries impartially.

After the trial judge denied Mr. Amen’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, he withdrew as attorney form Ms. Madsen individually and as trustee. As a result of the proceedings, the court ultimately removed Ms. Madsen as trustee and Mr. Amen and his firm as special co-trustee, froze the trust’s assets and ordered Ms. Madsen to return distributions she had made to herself, her fees and the fees she had paid Mr. Amen. The Judge specifically found that Mr. Amen had breached his fiduciary duties as special co-trustee, because he had not been impartial to the three beneficiaries in his advice and representation of Ms. Madsen.

Mr. Amen appealed the finding. The Missouri Court of Appeals summarily dismissed his appeal, finding that he was not an “interested person” within the meaning of Missouri’s version of the Uniform Trust Code. He did not have a property right in (or a claim against) the trust itself, according to the appellate judges. Consequently, he had no standing to claim that the trial judge had made a mistake.

The Court of Appeals noted that this was not the first case they had heard in which members of Mr. Amen’s firm had named the firm as “special co-trustee.” In an earlier case, Mr. Amen’s partner had named the firm as “special co-trustee” in a trust for a man who was at the time the subject of a guardianship proceeding. When that man’s children dismissed their guardianship petition, Mr. Amen’s partner attempted to appeal the dismissal; the appellate court ruled in that case that he lacked standing to bring the appeal.

Though the circumstances and the legal arguments were somewhat different, the result was the same — dismissal of the appeal. The appellate court was equally unimpressed, incidentally, by Mr. Amen’s other argument — that he would be required to report the finding of breach of fiduciary duty to professional licensing boards and might get in trouble with them, too. In Matter of Knichel, August 16, 2011.

The Knichel case raises a legal question separate from Mr. Amen’s standing to appeal the finding that he breached his fiduciary duty. What is a “special co-trustee,” and what are the duties and powers of such a position?

Under Arizona’s version of the Uniform Trust Code (which is not identical to Missouri’s), the position spelled out in Mr. Amen’s trust would probably be analogous to a “trust protector,” at least to the extent that Mr. Amen’s “special co-trustee” could change the respective shares of beneficiaries. Arizona’s legislative decision to expressly limit any fiduciary duty to beneficiaries might complicate that designation and the analysis of a similar case if one were to arise in the Arizona courts.

Failure to Distribute Estate On Time Leads to Damages Award

JULY 5, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 24
Family members sometimes assume that an estate will be ready for distribution within days or weeks of a death. Those familiar with the probate process usually appreciate that it is more likely that distribution will be between six months to a year after death — and sometimes longer. When the decedent established a living trust, though, survivors often expect the final distribution to be faster. Everyone has gathered for the funeral, including out-of-town children and grandchildren — shouldn’t there be a check ready to hand out while the whole family is together?

The reality is that administration of an estate, even when a trust is involved, can take much longer. A good rule of thumb: it may still take six months to a year to prepare final income tax returns, gather trust assets, liquidate those which need to be sold (and not all will need to be sold in most cases), make calculations and actually complete the distribution. If there are more complicated issues, like estate tax liability, it may take even longer.

Delay in distribution of a trust estate was the issue involved in a recent Indiana Court of Appeals case. Harrison Eiteljorg’s will had provided a trust for his widow, Sonja Eiteljorg. When she died in 2003, the trust was to be divided into two shares — one each for Harrison’s sons Nick and Jack. Nick, a stepson and Harrison’s accountant were the co-trustees.

The trust was large — it held about $13 million of assets. That meant that an estate tax return had to be filed, and taxes totaling $6.2 million paid (remember that in 2003 tax was imposed on estates greater than $1 million). That was accomplished by late 2004, but the trustees were worried about closing out the estate and distributing the remaining assets. What would they do if the IRS disagreed with their calculations of values and imposed an additional tax liability.

At a heated meeting between the co-trustees and the two sons, Nick demanded a partial distribution of $2 million (half each to himself and Jack). The other trustees declined, saying that they worried that additional tax of up to $2 million might be imposed, and a distribution as large as Nick wanted would leave the trust with too little cash if that happened. They proposed instead to distribute $1 million to the two sons. Nick and Jack left the meeting without agreeing, and both sides hired new lawyers to battle out the timing and amount of a distribution.

A few months later Nick and Jack filed a petition with the Indiana probate court asking for removal of the co-trustees and entry of a judgment against them. Their argument: there was no reason not to distribute the requested $2 million when demanded, and failure to do so breached the trustees’ duty to the beneficiaries. The trustees answered, arguing that they needed to retain substantial liquidity until the IRS finally accepted the estate tax return (or imposed additional tax liability, if that was to be the outcome).

About a year after their original demand for partial distribution, Jack and Nick secured an order from the probate judge requiring that $1.5 million be divided between them. The co-trustees complied. The court proceedings then shifted gears to address a two-part question: did the delay in distribution amount to a breach of fiduciary duty, and (if it did) what were the damages due to Nick and Jack?

The probate judge found that the delay did amount to a breach of fiduciary duty. Nick testified that he would have put his distribution into two mutual funds, and that it would have grown significantly during the months he was deprived of its use. Jack testified that he had planned to purchase real estate in Texas, and that it would have appreciated. In addition, Nick and Jack had incurred attorneys fees totaling $403,612.81.

Based on the damages testimony, the probate judge awarded Nick $156,701 in “lost” profits from the funds he could not invest in. Jack was awarded $112,046.77 in missed real estate gains. The remaining co-trustees were ordered to pay those amounts from their own pockets, as well as all but $50,000 of the attorneys fees.

The Indiana Court of Appeals had a different take on the case, and significantly reduced the damages award. First, two of the three appellate judges agreed with the trial judge that failure to distribute the funds earlier was a breach of fiduciary duty. Rather than giving Nick and Jack the profits they said they would have earned, however, the two judges limited their damages to the interest that the $1.2 million would have earned during the nine months it was delayed — and even that damage award was to be reduced by the amount of interest the money actually earned in the trustees’ hands. The appellate court also reduced the attorneys fee award to a total of $150,000 — what they called “a more appropriate assessment.” In the Matter of Trust of Eiteljorg, June 27, 2011.

One appellate judge would not have gone even that far. According to the dissenting opinion he authored, there was no breach of fiduciary duty. After all, he reasoned, the co-trustees offered to distribute almost exactly what was ordered a few months later, and Nick and Jack rejected the partial distribution plan. Retaining at least $2 million in liquid assets until the estate tax return had been accepted was a reasonable and prudent course, according to the dissenting opinion.

What lessons can we draw from the Eiteljorg case? Several come to mind:

  • Even with a trust, it may take months or years after a death to complete the administration and make final distribution. That is not the usual circumstance, but it can happen.
  • Although avoidance of litigation is one common goal of trust planning, it is not always effective. And the cost of probate or trust litigation can be significant — note that Nick and Jack incurred legal fees of about one-third of the total amount they sought as distribution, and that the question was not whether they were entitled to the money, but only when.
  • In addition to increasing cost, litigation can slow down the process. Here, the co-trustees were ready to make a significant distribution at the first meeting, but the court-ordered distribution (of almost exactly the same amount) was delayed for nine months.
  • Acting as trustee can sometimes be costly. The co-trustees in this case will be liable for at least $150,000 out of their own pockets. We can anticipate that Nick and Jack will object to any attempt to pay the trustees’ own lawyers from trust assets, or to pay any fees to the co-trustees.
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