Miller v. Miller, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 1365064 (Fla. 5th DCA April 20, 2012)

Trustees are fallible human beings like the rest of us: they can be paranoid, arrogant, uncooperative, mean, petty, abusive, jealous, condescending, hypocritical . . . the list goes on and on. While all this may make your blood boil, none of it amounts to a surcharge suit if you can’t also prove you were somehow economically damaged.

The economic damages element of trusts and estates litigation is what anchors these often morally ambiguous cases in the realm of objective reality. Reasonable people can disagree about what’s "right" or "wrong" trustee behavior, but we all do math the same way. If the math doesn’t add up to a damages claim . . . you don’t have a case. Period, end of story. Which may make perfect sense to lawyers and judges (it does to me), but it’s pure "crazy talk" to most non-lawyers, who will beg you to please take their case because a trustee is being a total jerk! If you don’t have the stone-cold discipline to say "NO" when the math doesn’t add up, you’re not doing anyone any favors. As I recently wrote here, you can be half way through a jury trial and still get bounced out of court on this issue alone. In the case linked-to above, the judge didn’t stop the trial midway, but the end result was the same: no damages = no surcharge.

Appellant . . . as beneficiary of a family trust, filed a surcharge action[FN1] against the co-trustees of the trust. He sought damages alleging that the co-trustees improperly entered into a lease agreement that did not provide fair market value to the trust. . . .  Appellant appeals from a final judgment refusing to remove co-trustees . . . The trial court’s finding that the trustees acted in the best interest of the trust in entering the lease are supported by competent, substantial evidence. Additionally, the trial court correctly concluded that Appellant failed to prove damages that would support imposing a surcharge against the trustees. See Crusselle v. Mong, 59 So.3d 1178, 1181 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011) (“The elements of a cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty are (1) the existence of a duty, (2) breach of that duty, and (3) damages flowing from the breach.”).

[FN1.] A surcharge action seeks to impose personal liability on a fiduciary for breach of trust through either intentional or negligent conduct. See Black’s Law Dictionary 1441 (6th ed. 1990); see also Harding v. Rosoff, 951 So.2d 912, 914 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007) (defining “surcharge” as “charge against a fiduciary to compensate a beneficiary for the breach of fiduciary duty”); Merkle v. Guardianship of Jacoby, 862 So.2d 906, 907 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003) (defining “surcharge” as “the amount that a court may charge a fiduciary that has breached its duty”).