Written by Jeffrey Skatoff • July 11th, 2016
Attorney Jeffrey Skatoff successfully tried a case concerning the construction of a trust and whether the trust could be divided pursuant to Florida statute. The case was tried in the Probate Division of the Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
The first issue was whether the decedent's child was the sole current beneficiary of the trust, or whether the decedent's grandchildren were also current beneficiaries. The Court found the language of the trust instrument to be ambiguous, so the Court considered extrinsic evidence on the subject.
Despite the parties' best effort to argue that the above Trust language is unambiguous, the Court rejects this argument and finds that the language is, in fact, anything but unambiguous. Therefore, the Court may consider extrinsic evidence to determine the settlor's intent in construing the Trust concerning the creation and purpose of the foregoing Trust language. Jervis v. Tucker, 82 So.3de 126, 128 (Fla.4DCA 2012) ("where the terms of an agreement * * * are unambiguous, its meaning and the intent of the maker are discerned solely from the face of the document, as the language and its plain meaning controls.")
The Court then considered the extensive evidence presented by the parties and ruled in our favor, holding that our client was the sole current beneficiary of the Trust.
The Court also considered the request of the grandchildren to modify the Trust pursuant to Florida statute 736.04115, to essentially divide up the Trust into separate pieces, with a piece for the settlor's child, and pieces for each of the settlor's grandchildren. Section 736.04115 provides as follow:
(1) Without regard to the reasons for modification provided in s. 736.04113, if compliance with the terms of a trust is not in the best interests of the beneficiaries, upon the application of a trustee or any qualified beneficiary, a court may at any time modify a trust that is not then revocable as provided in s. 736.04113(2).
(2) In exercising discretion to modify a trust under this section:
(a) The court shall exercise discretion in a manner that conforms to the extent possible with the intent of the settlor, taking into account the current circumstances and best interests of the beneficiaries.
(b) The court shall consider the terms and purposes of the trust, the facts and circumstances surrounding the creation of the trust, and extrinsic evidence relevant to the proposed modification.
The Court took evidence on the factors set forth in the statute and made detailed factual findings that the modification requested by the grandchildren would not be appropriate.
Jeffrey Skatoff is a Florida probate litigation attorney, who handles probate and trust disputes across the State of Florida. He can be reached at (561) 842-4868.