Keller v. Estate of Keller, 2007 WL 162770 (Fla. 4th DCA Jan 24, 2007)

The underlying facts of this tragic divorce/murder/land-trust case are recounted in lured detail in a Dateline NBC report entitled The Model and the Millionaire. Before the divorce was finalized, Mrs. Keller was murdered.  Mr. Keller is now in jail charged with her murder.  Mr. Keller’s reported $72+ million fortune is mostly in real estate.  His real estate investments were held in various land trusts.  (I’ve written recently about land trusts here and here.)

During his marriage to mail-order bride Mrs. Keller, Mr. Keller lead her to believe he was transferring a 50% beneficial interest in certain land trusts to her, when in fact he later testified that he had purposely failed to comply with the “technicalities” needed to transfer interests in a land trust.  When he tried to raise his own deliberate failure to comply with the requisite formalities for transferring title, the trial court ruled against him and the 4th DCA upheld that ruling based on the following rationale:

Another issue involves a number of other trusts which are factually similar. In 1999, at a time when Mrs. Keller was a minority beneficiary of the trusts, Mr. Keller, at her request, made written changes on each trust document to reflect that she had a fifty percent beneficial ownership interest. He testified in the dissolution proceeding that he had deliberately not followed through on certain formalities required by the trust instruments regarding the altering of the beneficial ownership interests. Again, his testimony, which was in conflict with his written changes on the trust instruments, was found not credible. There was ample evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion that Mr. Keller was estopped from raising the technical deficiencies, which included the fact that Mrs. Keller was equally jointly liable on the indebtedness on most, if not all of these properties. Cotton v. Williams, 1 Fla. 37, 54 (Fla.1846) (“No man can avoid his own deed by which an estate has passed, on account of his own fraud in executing it.”).

Lesson learned:

As a trust-and-estates attorney I would rationalize the court’s actions not only on notions of equity — which is the heart and soul of divorce litigation — but also on the distinction between equitable and legal title I wrote about hereMr. Keller’s actions may have purposely avoided the requirements for transferring legal title, but his actions were certainly sufficient to transfer equitable title.