Provost v. Justin, — So.2d —-, 2009 WL 484633 (Fla. 2d DCA Feb 27, 2009)

When Florida adopted its version of the Uniform Trust Code in 2007 [click here], it modernized and sometimes dramatically changed our prior body of trust law. One of the fundamental changes was a reversal of the presumption regarding revocability of trusts: the presumption used to be a trust is NOT revocable; F.S. 736.0602(1) now provides that trusts are revocable by default. My guess is that this change in the law may have been one of the causes for the linked-to case, although less-than-clear drafting was probably the primary culprit. Here’s how the leading expert on our new trust code, Prof. Powell, explained the importance of clear drafting in this Fl. Bar Journal article explaining the new code:

Methods of Amending or Revoking Trusts
Along with stating that it is revocable, a well-drafted revocable trust instrument will specify the method that is to be used to accomplish a revocation or amendment. If the trust instrument does this, the provision in the instrument is exclusive in the sense that the trust can be revoked or amended only by substantially complying with the method stated in the instrument. If the instrument does not specify a method, any clear and convincing manifestation of the settlor’s intent to revoke is sufficient, including a provision in the settlor’s later will or codicil expressly revoking the trust or specifically devising property that would otherwise pass according to the trust terms.[FN 57]

[FN 57] See generally §736.0602(3)(b). The “substantial compliance” test in this section may be more lenient than existing Florida law, which appears to require strict compliance. See Euart v. Yoakley, 456 So. 2d 1327 (Fla. 4th D.C.A. 1984).

In the linked-to opinion the joint revocable trust agreement contained language limiting the right of amendment to the settlors "during their lives." After one of them died, the survivor attempted to amend their joint trust agreement in a way that would basically disinherit their three children and leave most of the estate to the widow’s caregiver. This was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Here’s how the 2d DCA explained its rationale for rejecting the purported trust-agreement amendment and reversing the trial court’s judgment:

“The polestar of trust interpretation is the settlors’ intent.” L’Argent v. Barnett Bank, N.A., 730 So.2d 395, 397 (Fla. 2d DCA 1999). “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.” Roberts v. Sarros, 920 So.2d 193, 195 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (citations omitted). The parties agree that these principles apply to the case at hand and rely on both L’Argent and Roberts in disputing the interpretation this court should give to the Trust.

As in L’Argent, the Trust contains language that limits the right of amendment to the grantors “during their lives.” See 730 So.2d at 397. Based on our review of the entire Trust document, we conclude that both grantors needed to execute any amendment to the Trust. Because Aurele Provost did not execute the amendment prepared by Geraldine Provost, the amendment is ineffective. Accordingly, we reverse the summary judgment in favor of Appellees Elizabeth Justin and Sharon Harsch and remand for the trial court to enter summary judgment in favor of Appellants Levis Provost, Marquis Provost, and Constance Monty.

By the way, we should expect to see more and more joint revocable trusts as part of our practice. Especially if spousal portability of estate-tax exemptions is folded into any new version of the estate tax (and I think it will, click here). For a solid primer on joint revocable trusts see Joint Trusts in Separate Property States by frequent lecturer and Chicago estate planning attorney Louis Harrison.