Bryan v. Dethlefs, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 1425499 (Fla. 3d DCA May 16, 2007)

In this case the beneficiary of his predeceased grandfather’s trust died before the trust assets were fully distributed to him.  The subsequent litigation revolved around this question: in order to vest under the trust, does the following trust clause require the beneficiary to be living at the time of the settlor’s death, or upon full distribution of his inheritance under the trust?

Distribution to Grandson: Upon my death, the then balance of principal and accumulated income remaining in the trust fund shall be distributed to my Grandson, ROBERT R. BIZZELL, if he is living at the time of distribution. (emphasis added).

Miami-Dade County Probate Judge Arthur L. Rothenberg ruled the vesting event was the settlor’s date of death, and the 3d DCA affirmed.

Lesson learned: when in doubt, it’s vested – NOT contingent

Rules of construction can be useful tools because they tip the scales in favor of a certain interpretation when the subject text is less than crystal clear.  That’s what happened in this case.  The following excerpt from the linked-to opinion provides useful guidance with respect to the rules of construction applicable if there is any doubt that an inheritance vests immediately or is contingent upon some future event:

[T]he law favors the early vesting of estates. Lumbert v. Estate of Carter, 867 So.2d 1175, 1179 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004)(citing Sorrels v. McNally, 89 Fla. 457, 105 So. 106 (1925)). As this Court stated in Estate of Rice v. Greenberg, 406 So.2d 469 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981), any doubt as to whether an interest is vested or contingent should be resolved in favor of vesting:

This Court is committed to the doctrine that remainders vest on the death of the testator or at the earliest date possible unless there is a clear intent expressed to postpone the time of vesting. It is also settled that in case of doubt as to whether a remainder is vested or contingent, the doubt should be resolved in favor of its vesting if possible, but these general rules all give way to the cardinal one that a will must be construed so as to give effect to the intent of the testator.

406 So.2d at 473 (quoting Krissoff v. First Nat. Bank of Tampa, 32 So.2d 315 (Fla.1947)). Accordingly, no estate should be held to be contingent “unless very decided terms are used” and “unless there is a clear intent to postpone the vesting.” Sorrels, 89 Fla. at 467, 105 So. at 110. Indeed, “[t]he presumption that a legacy was intended to be vested applies with far greater force, where a testator is making provision for a child or grandchild, than where the gift is to a stranger or to a collateral relative.” Sorrels, 89 Fla. at 467, 105 So. at 110.

Finally, if a trust vests at the settlor’s death, then “the death of the beneficiary before it becomes payable does not cause the legacy or devise to lapse.” Sorrels, 89 Fla. at 465, 105 So. at 110. Similarly, where a settlor intends a trust to vest upon the testator’s death, benefits accrue to the beneficiaries from the time of the death, not the subsequent time that the trust was funded. In re Bowen’s Will, 240 So.2d 318, 320 (Fla. 3d DCA 1970).