DeMello v. Buckman, 2005 WL 2990487 (Fla. 4th DCA Nov 09, 2005) When advising parties involved in trust litigation there are two fronts I like to focus on: (i) the legal substance of the case and (ii) what I refer to as “capturing the moral high ground.” Being right on the law is crucial, although not always sufficient. When in doubt, the litigant occupying the moral high ground is much more likely to get the nod from the trial judge (and the other side is just as likely to get hammered). This case deals with the suit by one sister against another sister as trustee of their deceased parents’ inter vivos trust. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who captured (or lost) the moral high ground here before Broward County Judge Mark A. Speiser. Fortunately for the losing side, however, the Fourth DCA reversed most of the trial judge’s final judgment on appeal (lesson learned: sometimes it pays to appeal). The most interesting issues addressed by the Fourth DCA were the following:
- Courts have a limited role in supervising the exercise of a trustee’s discretion, thus warranting reversal of the trial judge’s award of damages for selling a residence owned by the trust for less than the contesting trust beneficiary thought the house should have been sold for.
The court has a limited role in supervising the exercise of the trustee’s discretion. As stated in Scott on Trusts: [T]he court will not control [a trustee’s] exercise of [discretion] as long as he does not exceed the limits of the discretion conferred upon him. The court will not substitute its own judgment for his. Even where the trustee has discretion, however, the court will not permit him to abuse the discretion. This ordinarily means that so long as he acts not only in good faith and from proper motives, but also within the bounds of a reasonable judgment, the court will not interfere; but the court will interfere when he acts outside the bounds of a reasonable judgment. In other words, although there is a field, often a wide field, within which the trustee may determine whether to act or not and when and how to act, beyond that field the court will control him. How wide that field is depends upon the terms of the trust, the nature of the power, and all the circumstances. (Footnote omitted). 3 Austin Wakeman Scott & William Franklin Fratcher, The Law of Trusts § 187 (4th ed. 1988).
A recent Florida Bar Journal article I wrote about here provided a comprehensive survey of current Florida law on this subject.
- Under Florida Civil Procedure Rule 1.120(g), “special damages” must be specially plead in the complaint. It is not uncommon to seek compensation for lost income arising from trustee mismanagement. Here’s what the Fourth DCA had to say about special damages in this case:
The court awarded three items of damage to Buckman: (1) mortgage payments not received in the amount of $33,832.89; (2) foregone investment income on mortgage down payment not received in the amount of $3,928.50; and (3) foregone investment income on other mortgage payments not received in the amount of $821.88. Even if we were to decide that these were compensable items of damage, which we do not decide, none of these items of damage were specially pleaded in the complaint, and all of them constitute items of special damage. Therefore, Buckman is not entitled to recover these items of damage.
- In the absence of contrary evidence, it was improper to award as damages the trust’s payment of legal fees incurred by the trustee in the administration of the trust prior to litigation, especially if the amount is within that deemed presumptively reasonable by 2004->Ch0737->Section%202041#0737.2041″>F.S. § 737.2041.
- In the absence of contrary evidence, it was improper to award as damages the trust’s payment of the CPA who prepared the tax return for the trust. The Fourth DCA specifically noted that trustees are obligated under 2004->Ch0737->Section%20402#0737.402″>F.S. § 737.402(u) to file tax returns and pay taxes on the trust, as well as authorized under 2004->Ch0737->Section%20402#0737.402″>F.S. § 737.402(2)(y) to hire accountants.