Reid v. In re Estate of Sonder, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 1007137 (Fla. 3d DCA Mar 23, 2011)

The last time I wrote about this case the issue was whether a trustee, acting solely in her capacity as trustee, had standing to bring a trust reformation action under F.S. 736.0415 (Reformation to correct mistakes). Trial court said no, 3d DCA said YES.

After having won the right to bring her trust reformation action, the trustee is now back before the 3d DCA because the same judge who didn’t think she had standing subsequently ruled against her on the merits, denying her claim for trust reformation under F.S. 736.0415 . . . even though the uncontroverted evidence of the drafting attorney and the testator’s doctor (the only two witnesses to testify) unequivocally stated the trust contained a drafting mistake and the requested reformation was needed to carry out the testator’s intent.

Case Study:

In this case the testator wanted the nurse who had cared first for his late wife and then for the testator himself to have the condo he lived in. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough cash left in the estate to satisfy all of the testator’s cash gifts or "devises", including a $125,000 gift to the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. When this happens all gifts of equal priority are supposed to be reduced or "abated" equally. For example, if two people are each supposed to receive $100 and there’s only $100 left in the estate, both devises are abated down to $50. Things are more complicated if one of the gifts is real property. In those cases you have to sell the property to abate it.

The order in which devises abate is governed by F.S. 733.805. This complex statute is a classic example of a “rule of construction” applicable to all Florida wills and trusts that is NOT part of the actual text appearing within the document the client signs.

In this case the trustee filed a petition under F.S. 736.0415 asking the trial court to fix a drafting error in the trust agreement. The requested fix would ensure the testator’s condo was NOT subject to abatement, so it could be devised intact to the nurse. The trial court said NO, sell the condo, and on appeal the 3d DCA agreed. To make sense of the 3d DCA’s ruling you need to read it against the backdrop of classic legal theory: we always presume testators understand and consent to every word in their wills or trusts.

[T]here is no evidence Sonder would not have been capable of understanding the trust as written. In fact, nothing in the record explains why Sonder, an articulate and precise businessman, would have approved the plain and simple trust terms if they did not reflect his intent.

Theory vs. Reality:

Is it fair to assume that a testator reading the "plain and simple" text of his trust agreement would also understand that if years in the future he died with less cash in the bank then he assumed on the date he signed his trust that Florida’s rule of abatement (F.S. 733.805) would mean the gift of his condo to his nurse would no longer be effectuated? Of course not.

A lay person cannot be expected to read and "understand" a trust agreement the same way a lawyer with years of experience and specialized training can. So even if we assume a client has read his trust agreement, it is not fair to assume this same client was aware of and consented to any drafting mistakes that may be contained within the "plain and simple" text of the document — especially if it’s an error of "omission" (i.e., attorney accidentally leaves out clause that should have been included in trust agreement handed to client). Here’s how the authors of A License to Deceive: Enforcing Contractual Myths Despite Consumer Psychological Realities explain this point as applied to consumer contracts in general:

To understand a contract, or even to know that they should look for certain pieces of information, consumers need some background knowledge. In particular, they need to know how contracts of this type—be they mortgage contracts, rental agreements, life or health insurance policies, etc.—are typically structured, the types of information and agreements that are typically codified in these contracts, and the alternative forms that these agreements can take. Cognitive psychologists call mental data structures that code information of this type “schemas,” and consumers need to have specific schemas to understand a mortgage contract, a rental agreement, a life or health insurance policy, and so forth. When consumers read contracts without this knowledge, they will not necessarily be able to identify when something is unusual or amiss.

Did the dissent get this one right? YES

In her dissent Judge Wells argued the majority got this one wrong and stated she would have granted the requested trust reformation. I found Judge Wells’ analysis convincing and agree with her.

Florida’s legislature adopted F.S. 736.0415 so judges could re-write trust agreements to correct mistakes. These mistakes go beyond simply fixing "typos". We know this because the statute says a judge can reform a trust agreement even if the text is unambiguous, if the end result is not consistent with the client’s intent. For example, failing to account for Florida’s statutory abatement statute is a mistake of omission. In order to counter Florida’s default abatement rules the drafting attorney would have to add special language to the trust agreement. This is the type of mistake a lay person can’t possibly be expected to catch by simply reading the clear text of his trust agreement. The 3d DCA’s majority opinion fails to grasp this point. The dissent did not. Here’s how Judge Wells explained this statutory construction point, which I believe is the better analysis:

The express purpose of section 736.0415 is to permit reformation of an otherwise clear, unambiguous written trust signed by a settlor where evidence exists that the “plain meaning of the trust instrument” does not evidence the settlor’s intent. Thus the fact that this articulate, ninety-three-year-old former businessman signed a document that did not on its face encompass what he wanted is non-determinative.[FN5] The record is that this settlor knew what he wanted, questioned his attorney as to whether the document he signed encompassed that desire, and was repeatedly but incorrectly assured that it did.

Of course, a client is entitled to rely on the skill of his attorney to draft an agreement that encompasses his intent. In this case, the record confirms that this astute but elderly businessman, who was not a lawyer, retained a probate and estate lawyer not only to draft a new will after his wife died, but also to create a trust and then to have that same lawyer revise it at least four times. The record also confirms that between 1998 when the relationship began and 2005 when he died, this settlor frequently wrote to, spoke to, and met with his attorney, both at his home and at his attorney’s offices. Most importantly, the record—without contradiction—is that this settlor told his attorney what he wanted, questioned his lawyer as to whether he was getting it, and was repeatedly assured by that lawyer—who himself had no idea that he had not accomplished his client’s goals—that the settlor was getting what he wanted.[FN6] Therefore, the fact that this settlor was intelligent and precise, and the trust clear and unambiguous, does not support the instant denial of reformation under section 736 .0415 of the Florida Statutes.

***************************

[FN5]. As the Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills & Other Donative Transfers § 12.1 (2003), confirms, execution of a document, following review by a settler, should, for a number of reasons, carry no conclusive effect:

l. Donor’s signature after having read document does not bar remedy. Proof that the donor read the document or had the opportunity to read the document before signing it does not preclude an order of reformation or the imposition of a constructive trust. The English Law Reform Committee, in recommending the adoption of a reformation doctrine for wills, stated well the rationale for this position:

We have also considered whether any special significance ought to be given to cases in which the will has been read over to the testator, perhaps with explanation, and expressly approved by him before execution. In our view it should not. Some testators are inattentive, some find it difficult to understand what their solicitors say and do not like to confess it, and some make little or no attempt to understand. As long as they are assured that the words used carry out their instructions, they are content. Others may follow every word with meticulous attention. It is impossible to generalise, and our view is that reading over is one of the many factors to which the court should pay attention, but that it should have no conclusive effect.

Law Reform Committee, Nineteenth Report: Interpretation of Wills, Cmnd. No. 5301, at 12 (1973).

[FN6]. The question and the testifying attorney’s response confirmed the settlor’s reliance on his counsel:

Q. This precise, articulate, strong-willed man could read and write English, and as you sit here today you have no reason to say that he didn’t understand what you were doing?

A. That’s not true. Sir, as I have testified over and over, Mr. Sonder told me what he wanted and he depended on me to put it in the correct document and phrase it correctly.