Recap of Keystone’s 2019 Successes
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Keystone was fortunate to achieve a number of significant victories for its clients in 2019. Below is a brief recap of several of these successes.
Failed Attempt to Invalidate a Marriage and Contest a Trust Amendment
Keystone represented a husband who was acting as trustee of his late spouse’s trust and faced allegations of elder abuse and undue influence by some of the decedent’s friends, based on their concerns about the timing of the trust amendment relative to the decedent’s death. The decedent’s friends had never approved of his marriage to the decedent and, in addition to the claims, they brought a trust contest seeking to invalidate the disputed amendment to the trust. The decedent’s friends also sought to invalidate the decedent’s marriage after his death. Keystone developed a strong case defending the husband’s actions and demonstrating that the petitioners had no basis to invalidate the decedent’s marriage at any time—but certainly not after he had passed away. (Keystone addressed this issue in more detail in an article in its previous quarterly newsletter – entitled, Marrying Into Elder Abuse: A Cautionary Tale.)
Due to Keystone’s efforts, the case was settled early in the trust litigation process at a private mediation. Keystone’s client received a very favorable settlement that allowed him to obtain, as a distribution from the trust, an amount close to what he would have obtained under the disputed trust amendment. He was also able to act as the trustee of the Trust, which allowed him to control the sales of the trust assets and obtain substantial fees for his services. Keystone’s client was thus able to begin to move forward and put the hurtful allegations and stress behind him.
Keystone Helps Client Thwart Trust Contest Filed by Resentful Step-Brother
Keystone successfully represented the successor trustee and primary beneficiary of her mother’s trust against an action brought by her estranged step-sibling, a minority beneficiary, which alleged trust contests to more than 20 years’ worth of estate planning documents, surcharge damages of at least $900,000, and punitive damages, based on theories of undue influence and lack of capacity. Keystone’s client was personally present during several meetings with her mother’s estate planning attorney, advised her mother regarding the implications of changes made to her trust, had a very close and confidential relationship with her mother, and personally benefited from each successive change made to her mother’s estate plan.
Based on the foregoing factors, the court potentially could have applied a presumption of undue influence, which would have shifted the burden of proof to Keystone’s client to disprove undue influence by clear and convincing evidence. Nevertheless, Keystone obtained a settlement that validated all of the decedent’s estate planning documents in exchange for only a nominal, nuisance-value settlement payment to the contesting beneficiary.
Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep
Keystone represented the wife of a decedent in a Marvin action to enforce the decedent’s oral promises to name Keystone’s client as a beneficiary of the decedent’s substantial trust estate. Over the course of decades, Keystone’s client and the decedent were engaged in a non-marital relationship, while the decedent was legally married to another woman. After the passing of the decedent’s wife, the decedent and Keystone’s client ultimately married, and the decedent repeatedly promised that he would “take care of her for life” in the event something were to happen to him. But the relationship soured shortly after the marriage and at the time of the decedent’s passing, decedent was in the process of divorcing Keystone’s client, had executed estate plan documents disinheriting Keystone’s client from his substantial trust estate, and had taken steps to obtain ex parte orders in the family court determining that Keystone’s client had a minimal interest in the decedent’s substantial 401(k) Plan.
After the decedent passed, Keystone’s client was ready to walk away and had abandoned all hope of enforcing the decedent’s promises—leaving her with insufficient funds to support herself now and in her retirement. But, after being retained, Keystone gave the client the confidence to stand up and enforce her rights. Despite the fact that none of decedent’s promises to her were in writing, Keystone scored a resounding victory for its client when early in the representation it secured the client’s spousal interest in decedent’s 401(k) plan and, shortly before trial, it brokered a settlement that collectively netted the client approximately $1.5 million in assets, which allowed her to comfortably provide for herself.
“Grandchild” Means What It Says
In a case involving some of the biggest law firms in the world, Keystone successfully represented a grandchild in an action to interpret a series of irrevocable trusts in a manner that would disqualify Keystone’s client from receiving any distribution. In 1980, prior to having any grandchildren, the client’s grandfather created six (6) separate irrevocable trusts that were, by and large, identical to one another. Each trust named one future grandchild as its beneficiary. Keystone’s client was the grandfather’s first grandchild; however, Keystone’s client was born out of wedlock and never lived with her father, the grandfather’s son. The grandfather did not shy away from making his disapproval known, as he never communicated or sought to have a relationship with his grandchild, nor did he disclose the existence of the trusts to her. Instead, after keeping the existence of the trusts a secret for decades, the trustee of the grandfather’s irrevocable trusts filed a Petition for Instructions seeking to exclude Keystone’s client as a beneficiary on the basis that the term “grandchild” should not include a grandchild born out of wedlock who did not live with the grandfather’s child during their minority. The trustee argued that the undefined term “grandchild” was ambiguous and sought to introduce evidence of the grandfather’s true intent—e.g., the grandfather’s present testimony of what he truly intended in 1980, which he declared was never to benefit a non-marital grandchild. Keystone, in turn, argued that the trusts were clear and unambiguous on their face and that the term “grandchild” means what it says and could not be reasonably interpreted to exclude a biological grandchild, regardless of the grandchild’s parents’ decision not to marry or live together.
At an early hearing, and without requiring a trial, the court ruled in Keystone’s client’s favor, determined that the term “grandchild” should be interpreted in accordance with its plain meaning and without the need to examine any extrinsic evidence, and that this term clearly included biological grandchildren whether or not they were non-marital. This matter is currently on appeal.
Did the Decedent Really Confuse His Own Daughters?
Keystone represented one of the two daughters of a decedent, each of whom were named as beneficiaries of their father’s trust. Decedent’s other daughter initiated a probate petition claiming that a provision of the trust reducing her share by unpaid loans that decedent had given her during her lifetime was in error, as the decedent truly intended to reduce the share of his other daughter, Keystone’s client. During the litigation, Keystone exposed such claim as meritless, which caused the daughter to practically abandon the case. Keystone thereafter obtained terminating sanctions and issue sanctions against her, which caused the daughter’s probate petition to be dismissed with prejudice. Thereafter, Keystone successfully settled all of the remaining disputes among the beneficiaries and the trustee, and obtained for its client what she was rightfully entitled to under her father’s trust.
That’s What Friends Are For
In a conservatorship matter, Keystone’s client sought to have conserved her 81-year-old close friend of over 40 years (“conservatee”), over his objection. Keystone’s client was the named attorney-in-fact and trustee acting under the conservatee’s prior estate planning documents before the conservatee’s niece came along. In support of the Petition for Conservatorship, Keystone alleged that the conservatee was a victim of elder abuse and undue influence by his out-of-town niece, who had recently arrived to take control of conservatee’s home, cash, and estate planning documents. Within days of arriving in town in April 2018, and while conservatee was residing in a skilled nursing facility, conservatee’s niece changed the locks on conservatee’s residence, arranged for him to change his prior estate planning documents, and took him to a bank to withdraw $88,000 from his account. At the initial hearing on Keystone’s temporary conservatorship petition, the conservatee, his new estate planning attorney, and his niece all appeared to support conservatee’s competence and object to the conservatorship, and the conservatee himself provided testimony. Nevertheless, Keystone’s arguments prevailed and the court granted the temporary conservatorship.
Unfortunately, thereafter, conservatee’s condition materially worsened to the point where a permanent conservatorship clearly became necessary, so the court granted Keystone’s permanent conservatorship petition. Through the diligent efforts of conservatee’s close friend and Keystone, conservatee’s financial and personal interests were protected and his new estate planning documents were suspended. Keystone also recovered from conservatee’s estate the attorney’s fees and costs its client incurred for her efforts to establish the conservatorship.
Keystone thanks all of its clients for a successful 2019!