Roberts v. Sarros, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 2d DCA Feb 15, 2006) Probate appellate decisions come in all flavors. Some sparkle with creative lawyering by one of the advocates (see here), some can make you dizzy following the appellate court’s complex but ultimately convincing line of reasoning (see here), and some just get the job done. This is one of those cases that just get’s the job done. No fireworks, just good lawyering and solid guidance for us practitioners. In this case the Second DCA walks us through an exercise probate lawyers encounter every day: how to read or “construe” a trust agreement. Step 1: Zero in on the problematic language. I say problematic because no matter how ambiguous a provision may be, it doesn’t really matter if it has no impact on any of the interested parties. In this case the problematic language revolved around whether a surviving widow had the authority to revise a trust agreement after her husband had passed away. Surviving widow signed a trust amendment disinheriting one set of her grandchildren. Grandchildren understandably didn’t think this was a good idea, and the case ended up in court. Here’s the “problematic” language, as described by the Second DCA:
Article XV of the Trust provides, “AMENDMENT AND REVOCATION: This Trust is subject to revocation, change or amendment, in writing, by the Grantors from time to time.” Article XII contains rules of construction for the Trust instrument, including the following provision that is pertinent to this appeal: “Unless the context required [sic] otherwise, masculine personal pronouns include the feminine, and the singular and plural may be construed interchangeably.”
Step 2: Identify the applicable law. Here’s what the Second DCA had to say about the law in Florida applicable to trust-construction disputes:
This court has recognized that “[t]he polestar of trust interpretation is the settlors’ intent.” L’Argent v. Barnett Bank, N.A., 730 So.2d 395, 397 (Fla. 2d DCA 1999). If the trust language is unambiguous, the settlors’ intent as expressed in the trust controls and the court cannot resort to extrinsic evidence. Id.; Ludwig v. AmSouth Bank of Fla., 686 So.2d 1373, 1376 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997). In determining the settlors’ intent, the court should not “resort to isolated words and phrases”; instead, the court should construe “the instrument as a whole,” taking into account the general dispositional scheme. Pounds v. Pounds, 703 So.2d 487, 488 (Fla. 5th DCA 1997); see also L’Argent, 730 So.2d at 397.
Step 3: Apply law to the facts. At the trial court level the judge ruled that surviving widow lacked the authority to amend the trust agreement. The trial court agreed with the disinherited-grandchildren when they argued that use of the plural form “Grantors” in the trust-amendment section meant widow lacked authority to unilaterally amend the document. The Second DCA reversed, based on the following line of reasoning:
[I]n considering the trust instrument as a whole, it is clear that if the singular/plural clause were not applied, it would produce absurd results. Every reference in Article I is to the plural form “Grantors.” Article I deals with the disposition of principal and income of the Trust to the Grantors during their lifetime. If the references to the “Grantors” were construed to mean only the plural form, then after the death of the first Grantor the surviving Grantor could no longer receive income from the Trust. Such a result is contrary to the stated purpose of the Trust, which is to provide for the McNeills “for so long as they may live.” Article I also provides that “the Trustees shall make payments from the principal of the Trust Fund to or for the benefit of the Grantors in such sums and at such times as the Grantors may request from time to time.” Again, if construed to mean only the plural “Grantors,” then the surviving Grantor would have no access to the principal of the Trust even though the trust was established to provide proper care for the McNeills and to allow them to maintain “a style of living to which they have been accustomed.” Like Article I, Article XV must be construed in accordance with the singular/plural clause. This is consistent, as in Article I, with the overall plan that the Grantors retain control over their assets as long as either of them lived. Nothing in the context of Article XV requires that “Grantors” be construed to mean only the plural form. When construed to include the singular “Grantor,” Louise M. McNeill, as the surviving Grantor, could amend the Trust pursuant to the power to revoke or amend contained in Article XV. Thus, we reverse the trial court’s order granting summary judgment as to count I and determining that the Amendment by Louise M. McNeill was invalid and remand for further proceedings on the Appellees’ complaint.