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Probate litigator Stephen P. Heuston of Frese, Hansen, Anderson, Anderson, Heuston & Whitehead, P.A., in Melbourne, Florida, was on the winning side of Belanger v. Salvation Army, 2009 WL 223884 (11th Cir.(Fla.) Feb 02, 2009), a high-profile case that received a good amount of press (and I wrote about here and here).  I invited Mr. Heuston to share some of the lessons he drew from this case with the rest of us and he was kind enough to accept.

[Q]  Looking back, what strategic decisions did you make in this case that were particularly outcome determinative at the trial-court level? On appeal?

[A]  The plaintiffs chose to bring the action in Federal District Court so all argument was done by written pleadings. The order from the trial court was on The Salvation Army’s Motion to Dismiss, which was our first pleading filed. The point being there was very little strategic decision making due to how early we were in the process. On appeal The Salvation Army presented basically the same arguments as set forth in their Motion to Dismiss. Because the case presented an issue of first impression (the interpretation of Florida’s pay-on-death statute 655.82 as to whether a charity is a permissible beneficiary) the 11th Cir. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments. Arguments made by both parties were consistent with their written briefs.

[Q]  Do you think this case will have lasting repercussions in terms of how POD accounts are used in Florida or how charities do business in Florida?

[A]  Very much so. I had many charities and the Florida Bankers Association and the International Florida Bankers Association who were following this case closely. Charities were obviously concerned because this was an inexpensive means for donors to make gifts at death. There are no legal fees or other transaction costs to set up a POD account naming a charity as a beneficiary on a bank account. There are no records kept on how much money is transferred to charities by means of POD accounts but I have been told by several charities that if donors were not able to use POD accounts to name a charity that it would have a significant negative impact on charitable fundraising. Additionally, the banks were concerned because if Florida law was interpreted to have not allowed charities to be a permissible POD beneficiary the banks were concerned about liability for having paid out to charitable POD beneficiaries since the Florida POD statute became effective in 1995. Additionally, the Florida statute was derived from the Uniform Nonprobate Transfers on Death Act, which has been adopted in some version by 48 states. A negative interpretation of the Florida statute could have had an impact on similar statutes in other states, possibly impeding this popular form of charitable giving in other states.

[Q]  From your perspective as probate litigator, do you think there’s anything that could have been done in terms of estate planning to avoid this litigation or at least mitigate its financial impact? 

[A]  Difficult to say. A similar bequest by will or trust would have been more costly to set up and could have still been challenged on other grounds by the decedent’s children. One possibility would have been for the decedent, Mr. Belanger, to explain to his two children that is was his intent to leave the POD bequest to the charity and explain why he was doing so. Many challenges to bequests to charities result from the shock to the children who were unaware of their parents charitable intent. Many children in those situations feel hurt and become suspicious of the charity and its involvement in procuring the bequest. If the parent can explain to the children the purpose and reasoning for the charitable gift then this can often times eliminate or at least reduce the hurt that might otherwise result from finding out only after the parent has died.

[Q]  Any final words of wisdom for probate lawyers of the world based on what you learned in this case?

[A]  When representing charitable organizations the probate litigation attorney should advise the charity to not be intimidated by the legal process. If the facts and law favor the interest of the charity then the charity should do a cost-benefit analysis to determine if defending their interest and upholding the intent of the donor is justified. If it is justified then the charity should persevere during the legal proceeding and continue for as long as it makes economic sense. It is often times left to the charity to defend the charitable intent of the decedent. There are many in the probate process or trust administration who may attempt to frustrate the intent of the decedent, e.g. disgruntled children or other family members, and it is often advisable for the charity to defend against legal actions that impede the decedent’s charitable intent.