In re Raborn, — F.3d —-, 2006 WL 3409104 (11th Cir.(Fla.) Nov 28, 2006)


The status of every single land-trust deed executed in Florida prior to 2004 remains unsettled and subject to attack in a bankruptcy proceeding.  Ultimate resolution of this issue depends on how the Florida Supreme Court answers the questions certified to it by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the linked-to opinion the 11th Circuit is asked to weigh in once again on a bankruptcy case that has been roiling Florida’s land-trust legal landscape since 2001.  The stakes are high . . . literally every land trust deed recorded prior to 2004 in the State of Florida is potentially subject to attack in a bankruptcy proceeding.

This case revolves around a common estate planning scenario: in 1991 mom and dad deeded real property to a trust created for their three children.  One of their children, their son Douglas K. Raborn, was the trustee of the trust.  The subject deed apparently contained the type of language that most Florida attorneys would say was sufficient to effectuate the desired title conveyance.  Here’s how the 11th Circuit described key terms of the deed:

The . . . “Conveyance Deed to Trustee Under Trust Agreement” (“Deed”), was recorded in the Palm Beach County real estate records on 5 February 1991. .  .  .  .  The Deed names Mr. and Mrs. Raborn as “Settlors under the Raborn Farm Trust Agreement dated January 25, 1991” and conveys the farm to “Douglas K. Raborn, as Trustee under the Raborn Farm Trust Agreement dated January 25, 1991.” According to the Deed, the Trustee is “to have and to hold the said real estate with the appurtenances upon the trust and for the uses and purposes herein and in said Trust Agreement set forth.” The Deed repeatedly refers to the Trust Agreement and acknowledges the Trustee’s broad powers to deal with the property. The Settlors signed the Deed and swore before a notary public “that they executed said instrument for the purposes therein expressed.”

Now here’s the scary part: when son, the trustee, declared bankruptcy 10 years later in 2001, the bankruptcy trustee argued that the real property deeded to him as trustee of the land trust was deeded to him  in fee simple thus making it a part of the bankruptcy estate and subject to the claims of son’s personal creditors.  On appeal to the district court the bankruptcy trustee won this argument in 2004!!??

Fast forward to 2006. 
The case is before the 11th Circuit once again.  Concluding that it needed clarity on Florida’s land-trust law before it could rule on the federal bankruptcy-law issues, the 11th Circuit certified the following two questions to the Florida Supreme Court:

Whether, under Florida Statutes section 689.07(1) as it existed before its 2004 amendment, this Deed-which is a recorded real estate conveyance deed to a named trustee of a private express trust identified in the deed by name and date, and contains other language referring to the unrecorded trust agreement, the settlors, and the beneficiaries-conveys only legal title to the property in trust to the grantee as trustee.

This question is solely an issue of Florida state law that should be decided by the Florida Supreme Court.

If the state court answers this first question in the negative and determines that the Deed-viewed in the light of the unamended statute-did not convey the property in trust, we also certify the following question:

Whether, as a matter of Florida law, the 2004 statutory amendment to Florida Statutes section 689.07(1) applies retroactively to the Deed in this particular case and causes the Deed-in the light of the amendmentFN5-to convey only legal title to the grantee in trust.FN6

In certifying these questions, our intent is not to restrict the issues considered by the state court, including whether the Deed and Trust Agreement were effective to create a valid “Illinois Land Trust” covered under Florida Statutes section 689.071 rather than section 689.07(1).FN7

FN5. Although the 2004 bill expressly states that the amendment only clarifies existing law and applies retroactively, the district court pointed to conflicting statements in the Senate Staff Analysis and Economic Impact Report. At one point, the report stipulates that the amendment was meant to “supersede[ ] the contrary federal district court ruling in the bankruptcy matter of In re Raborn.” At another point, the report states, “This bill would not affect the recent contrary ruling of a federal district court in bankruptcy. However the bill would apply to future judicial actions.”

FN6. We would need to answer for ourselves the question of whether federal law would allow retroactive application of the statute to this case, even if state law would allow it.

FN7. We are aware that the Florida Legislature extensively amended Florida Statutes section 689.071, effective 1 October 2006. This amendment to Florida’s land trust provision purports “to clarify existing law and applies to all land trusts whether created before, on, or after October 1, 2006.” Once again, we do not know whether, under Florida law, this amendment applies retroactively to this case. Even if state law would allow retroactive application of the amended land trust statute to this case, however, we would need to address the issue of whether such retroactive application is permissible as a matter of federal law.

Stay tuned for more!