Miami Children’s Hosp. Found., Inc. v. Estate of Hillman, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 4795648 (Fla. 4th DCA October 10, 2012)

In April 2004 Elaine B. Hillman amended her trust, including the following charitable bequest:

TWENTY–FIVE PERCENT (25%) to MIAMI CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL FOUNDATION, CRANIAL/FACIAL FOUNDATION, located at 3000 S.W. 62nd Avenue, Miami, FL 33155, ATT: Dr. Anthony Wolf [sic].

In January 2006  – almost two years later – a new not-for-profit calling itself the Miami Care Foundation was incorporated. Ms. Hillman died on July 13, 2007. According to the 4th DCA, the Miami Care Foundation contested Miami Children’s Hospital Foundation’s claim to the charitable bequest on the following grounds:

Ms. Hillman wanted Dr. Wolfe to have the ability to direct and control the assets of the pourover trust and Dr. Wolfe was now the head of [the Miami Care Foundation].

Drafting error or ambiguity?

If "Ms. Hillman wanted Dr. Wolfe to have the ability to direct and control" her charitable bequest, her trust agreement could have easily been written to say so. It wasn’t. To me, this sounds like a drafting error that could have been addressed under F.S. 736.0415, a Florida Trust Code provision I’ve previously written about here allowing judges to re-write or "reform" trust agreements to the extent needed to conform the text to the settlor’s intent. A judge’s authority under this statute goes way beyond simply fixing "typos". We know this because the statute specifically says a judge can reform a trust agreement even if the text is un-ambiguous. In other words, the key question is what’s the settlor’s intent, NOT whether the text is ambiguous. This last point is especially important in light of the 4th DCA’s ultimate ruling in this case.

For reasons unexplained in the appellate opinion, the Miami Care Foundation chose to litigate its claim under an ambiguous-trust theory. OK, so maybe the clause as drafted wasn’t a picture of clarity, but that alone doesn’t get you to a legal finding of ambiguity (i.e., the document is open to more than one reasonable interpretation). The text was clear, it just didn’t say what the settlor intended it to say.

At the trial court level the Miami Care Foundation won on the facts (the judge found in its favor on the issue of settlor intent), but on appeal the law caught up with it (no legal finding of ambiguity), resulting in reversal and the ultimate failure of its cause. Here’s how the 4th DCA put it:

In Scheurer v. Tomberlin, 240 So.2d 172 (Fla. 1st DCA 1970), the court quoted 35 Fla. Jur., Wills, Section 253, as follows:

A court may, in proper case, look beyond the face of a will if there is an ambiguity as to the person to whom it is applicable; if there is a latent ambiguity as to the identity of a legatee or devisee, or a mere inaccuracy in the designation or description contained in the will, extrinsic evidence is admissible to explain the ambiguity or inaccuracy and identify the person designated. Thus, parol evidence is admissible to explain the meaning of a description of a beneficiary named in a will that might apply to each of several persons, or to rectify a mistake made in the description of a beneficiary.

Scheurer, 240 So.2d at 175. However, “the general rule is that misnomer of a legatee will not defeat a bequest where the one intended can be identified with certainty.” Mass. Audubon Soc’y v. Ormond Vill. Imp. Ass’n, 152 Fla. 1, 10 So.2d 494, 495 (1942).

The bequest in Ms. Hillman’s First Amendment to Trust which is at issue in this case states: “TWENTY–FIVE PERCENT (25%) to MIAMI CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL FOUNDATION, CRANIAL/FACIAL FOUNDATION, located at 3000 S.W. 62nd Avenue, Miami, FL 33155, ATT: Dr. Anthony Wolf [sic].” This appears to unambiguously name MCHF as the beneficiary.

We therefore reverse and remand and direct the trial court to vacate its order determining that Miami Care Foundation, Inc. was the beneficiary of the pourover trust, and enter an order designating Miami Children’s Hospital, Inc. as the beneficiary of the pourover trust.