Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates

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Daughter Janay Milbourne (“Janay”) filed a caveat asserting that Edison Milbourne’s January 2013 Will was invalid because it had been procured by undue influence by sister and guardian Vashti Milbourne (“Vashti”); because it had been revoked by Edison; because it had been improperly executed; and because Edison lacked testamentary capacity to make the will in the first place. The Probate Court rejected all of these contentions on summary judgment motions except the first; the court found that a question of fact remained on the issue of undue influence. Vashti disagreed with that decision, and the Supreme Court granted her application for an interlocutory appeal. Janay, meanwhile, filed a cross appeal of the probate court’s grant of summary judgment to Vashti on the issue of revocation. Because the probate court was correct that an issue of fact remains on undue influence, and in its conclusion that Edison did not revoke his January 2013 will, the Supreme Court affirmed both judgments. View "Milbourne v. Milbourne" on Justia Law

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Bernard Norton, by and through Kim Norton, brought a wrongful death action against a number of defendants who were affiliated with a nursing home in which his wife, Lola Norton, died. Bernard claimed that negligent treatment caused Lola’s death. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint or, in the alternative, to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration of all claims in accordance with an agreement entered into by Lola at the time she was admitted to the nursing home. The trial court granted the motion to stay and compel arbitration, and Bernard appealed, contending that, as a wrongful death beneficiary, he could not be bound to Lola’s arbitration agreement. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and found that Lola’s beneficiaries were not required to arbitrate their wrongful death claims against the defendants. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether an arbitration agreement governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and entered into by a decedent and/or her power of attorney, which bound the decedent and her estate to arbitration, was also enforceable against the decedent’s beneficiaries in a wrongful death action. The Court found that such an arbitration agreement did bind the decedent’s beneficiaries with respect to their wrongful death claims, and, accordingly, reversed the Court of Appeals. View "United Health Services of Georgia, Inc. v. Norton" on Justia Law

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Joseph Schmidt was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in 1973, the Veterans Administration paid him disability benefits. Three years later, the VA appointed Dale Groenenboom as his guardian and conservator. In 1997, Schmidt moved into a personal care home, which was owned and operated by Charles and Jerry Reeves. In 2010, Schmidt was diagnosed with kidney cancer. At that time, Groenenboom still served as his guardian and conservator, and Schmidt still lived in the Reeveses’ personal care home. Schmidt was hospitalized in July 2010, and he made a will, which named Groenenboom as the executor. In that will, Schmidt left nothing to his twin sister, Judith Webb, instead leaving all of his estate to Groenenboom and the Reeveses. Schmidt died in October 2013, and Groenenboom filed a petition to probate the will in solemn form. Webb filed a caveat. The probate court denied the caveat and admitted the will to probate, and Webb appealed, arguing Schmidt lacked testamentary capacity as a matter of law when he made the July 2010 will. After review, the Supreme Court concluded Schmidt had enough knowledge about the nature and extent of his estate to sustain a finding that he had a decided and rational desire as to the disposition of his property. View "Webb v. Reeves" on Justia Law

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At the heart of this case was a dispute among family members over the estate of Edwin Burton Anderson, Jr. (“Burt”): his widow, Donna Lee Morris Anderson and Robert Knox, Jr., in his capacity as the administrator of Burt’s estate; and appellants, Burt’s three children from his first marriage, Charles Anderson, Arthur Anderson, and Kimberly Ware Anderson. At the time of his death, Burt owned a substantial amount of real property, including land which had been bequeathed to him by his father, Edwin Burton Anderson, Sr. (“Edwin”), in a 1962 will. After Burt’s death, Donna and Knox jointly filed an action seeking, in pertinent part: (1) to set aside certain deeds made in June 2013; and (2) construction of Edwin’s 1962 will, arguing that "Item Six" devised the land described therein in fee simple to Burt, thereby placing that property in Burt’s estate upon his death. The trial court granted Donna's motion for partial summary judgment on her claim to set aside the June 2013 deeds, concluding that Charles (who once held power of attorney over the property at issue) had no legal right to execute the deeds. With regard to Edwin’s will, the trial court ruled that Item Six bequeathed a life estate in the described property to Burt and at his death, the fee to Burt’s children. Burt’s children appealed (case number S16A1052) challenging the trial court’s order to the extent it granted partial summary judgment to Donna, and set aside the June 2013 deeds. In a cross-appeal (case number S16X1053), Donna argued the trial court erred by holding that Item Six of Edwin’s will granted Burt a life estate. The Supreme Court reversed that part of the trial court’s order challenged in S16A1052 and affirmed that part the trial court’s order challenged in S16X1053. View "Anderson v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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Tamara Williford filed a “Petition for Equitable Relief” against Mary Ann Brown, alleging that Brown’s husband, Tommy, was Williford’s biological father; that Tommy Brown was in poor physical health and could not leave home but was in good mental condition and can make decisions for himself; that Williford and Tommy have a good relationship, used to talk on the telephone regularly, and until recently saw each other in person; and that Tommy was prevented from doing so by Mrs. Brown. The petition requested an order requiring Mrs. Brown to allow Williford unimpeded personal access to Tommy, or appointing a guardian ad litem for Tommy. Mrs. Brown filed an answer denying: that Williford was Mr. Brown’s biological daughter, that he was in poor health, that he wished to have contact with Williford, and that Mrs. Brown has interfered in any way with Williford’s access to Mr. Brown. The trial court held that there was no such relief as Williford requested. The Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the trial court's dismissal of her petition. View "Williford v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Following the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to James Phillips and Larry Wyman Phillips in their capacity as co-executors of the estate of Opal Anderson Phillips (Opal), Mary Elizabeth Oravec appealed, arguing the trial court erred in its determination that Opal’s 2007 will should have been admitted to probate. Specifically, Oravec argued that the 2007 will violated the terms of a previous joint will that contractually could not be revoked by Opal. In 1997, Opal and her husband George executed a single will that recited only that it was a "joint" will. George died in 1998, and in 2004, Opal drafted a new will, expressly revoking the 1997 joint will. The attorney who drafted the 2004 will testified that Opal disinherited Oravec because she had loaned Oravec a significant amount of money during life, Oravec had not repaid the loans, and that Opal believed Oravec "had already received enough." Opal died in February 2014, and James and Larry offered the 2007 will for probate. Oravec filed a caveat, contending that: (1) the 1997 joint will was intended to be both joint and contractually binding; (2) as a result, Opal could not revoke the 1997 joint will after she benefitted from its probate; and (3) because of this fact, the 2007 will was invalid. The operative question in this case was whether Opal had any contractual obligation to George arising from the 1997 will that prevented her from revoking that will and changing her testamentary plan following George’s death. The Supreme Court found no evidence of any such obligation, and affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment. View "Oravec v, Phillips" on Justia Law

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Caveators James Ayers, Nancy Davis, and Debra Hilty, siblings of testator Donald Ayers (“Donald”), appealed a superior court judgment, entered after a jury verdict, upholding Donald’s last will and testament that left the entirety of his estate to Donald’s remaining sibling, Carol Ayers (“Carol”). Donald was divorced with no children, and his four siblings were his closest relatives, but discord between the siblings had developed during the last years of the life of their mother. Donald had no will prior to April 2009. After a discussion about Donald’s wishes for his property after his death, Carol, using a form she found on the internet, prepared a will for Donald which she gave him to review; it left the entirety of his estate to Carol and named her as executor, and in the event she predeceased him, named Carol’s daughter, Tammy Cook, as beneficiary and executor. That same day, with Carol as a passenger, Donald drove to the courthouse where two deputy clerks witnessed the will’s execution. After being informed that the will did not need to be filed with the court, Donald and Carol left, taking the will with them. Donald died on January 17, 2012. Carol filed the will for probate, and Caveators asserted that at the time of the will’s execution, Donald was laboring under the exercise of undue influence by Carol and Tammy. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Ayers v. Cook" on Justia Law

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Jay Richard Smith (Smith) died testate in 2013, survived by his wife Kathy (appellant), and the couple’s two minor daughters. At the time of his death, Smith was the beneficiary of the Jay Richard Smith Irrevocable Trust established by his parents, the provisions of which granted Smith an unrestricted testamentary power of appointment of the Trust assets remaining after his death. Following Smith’s death, appellant petitioned to probate Smith’s will. Thereafter, the probate court appointed appellant to serve as personal representative of Smith’s estate and appellee, Dana Ashford, to serve as Guardian Ad Litem representing the interests of the minor children. Appellant filed a Petition for Declaratory Judgment and Construction of a Will, seeking construction of the Will by the probate court and a declaration as to whether Smith, under the terms of the Will, exercised the testamentary power of appointment granted him by the Trust. Appellee filed a response on behalf of the children, asserting that the language of the Will was clear and unambiguous, that no construction of the Will was necessary or appropriate, and that no justiciable controversy existed to support the declaratory relief sought. After reviewing the pleadings, motions, briefs and arguments of counsel, the probate court found that the Will was not ambiguous and that the court thus could not look beyond the four corners of the document to ascertain Smith’s intent. Further, the court decided that the plain language of the relevant provisions of the Will clearly and unambiguously showed Smith failed to exercise the testamentary power of appointment granted him by the Trust. Accordingly, the probate court ordered the Trust assets to be distributed pursuant to the terms of the Trust where no power of appointment had been exercised. Appellant appealed. Because the Supreme Court agreed the language of the Will was unambiguous, but disagreed with the probate court’s determination that Smith failed to exercise his testamentary power of appointment therein, it affirmed in part and reversed in part the probate court’s order in this case. View "Smith v. Ashford" on Justia Law

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This trust management dispute has made a repeat trip to the Georgia Supreme Court. In their complaint, the plaintiffs raised claims of breach of fiduciary duty and breach of trust against the defendants by:(1) allegedly failing to make proper accountings to plaintiffs with respect to certain S-Trusts and family entities; (2) by making trust investments in illiquid family-owned entities (leaving the plaintiffs with unmarketable assets when the S-Trust assets are distributed free of trust to each beneficiary upon reaching the mandated age); (3) by creating a distribution scheme that imposes a code of conduct upon each beneficiary to qualify for distributions from trust investments; by creating a conflicts of interest; and (4) by failing to maximize income distributions in favor of growing trust principal. Plaintiffs also asserted claims for an accounting; constructive fraud/recision for failure to disclose and fraudulent misrepresentation regarding certain transactions allegedly improperly obtained the plaintiffs’ written consent; and for attorney fees. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants as to each of plaintiffs’ claims, with the exception of the breach of trust claim for the defendants’ failure, at any time prior to the filing of the lawsuit, to make required periodic accountings to the plaintiffs for the assets held in the trusts. The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals erred with respect to its ruling that defendants owed the plaintiffs an accounting of the family entities, concluding that the Court of Appeals failed to give due deference to the trial court’s discretion to grant or deny the equitable relief sought in the prayer for an accounting. The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals for it to reconsider the accounting issue. Upon remand, the Court of Appeals again found fact issues remain for jury determination with respect to whether the defendants breached their fiduciary duty or committed a breach of trust. Court of Appeals also remanded to the trial court the issue of whether the defendants owed the plaintiffs an accounting of the family entities held as trust assets so the trial court could reconsider its decision and exercise its discretion in light of the Court of Appeals’ opinion. Defendants petitioned for certiorari. The Supreme Court directed the parties to address the question of whether a jury had to determine which fiduciary duty applied to the various decisions and transactions made by the defendants. The Supreme Court again reversed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the trial court properly ruled with respect to its summary judgment decision. View "Rollins v. Rollins" on Justia Law

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William Stephens had two children who were born out of wedlock, Frank Debter and Vickie Estes. Stephens died in 2011; he executed his last will and testament in early 2006. In it, Stephens made several specific bequests of money, and he left the residue of his estate to Estes. He did not make Debter a beneficiary under the will. Debter filed a caveat to executor Roy Stephens' petition to probate the decedent Stephens' will in solemn form, challenging the validity of the will. Debter claimed that the will was a product of undue influence and that the decedent Stephens intended for Debter to share in his estate as if he were a formally legitimated child. The probate court rejected Debter's caveat, and Debter appealed to the superior court. Once there, the executor filed a motion for summary judgment which the superior court summarily granted in 2014. Instead of filing a timely notice of appeal from this ruling, Debter filed a motion for new trial, asserting that he had discovered new material evidence which undermined the superior court's summary judgment decision. The trial court denied Debter's motion for new trial, prompting this appeal. The Supreme Court dismissed this appeal because his notice for appeal was untimely filed. The Court noted that Debter did not present evidence that would qualify as "newly discovered evidence" to challenge the grant of summary judgment to the executor; he merely presented evidence that he should have, but failed to, produce earlier in the case. View "Debter v. Stephens" on Justia Law

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