Wells v. Wells, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 2949277 (Fla. 4th DCA Sep 16, 2009)

Florida’s declaratory-judgment act (F.S. Chapter 86) is based on the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act, which was finalized almost a hundred years ago in 1922 [click here].  The early 20th Century vintage of this statute explains why it uses archaic phrases rooted in medieval English jurisprudence, like cestui que trust, when the “Plain English” version of the phrase: “trust beneficiary”, would do just as well (for more on the post-1970s “Plain English Movement” click here).  For all you trusts-and-estates Geeks out there, click here for more on the etymology of “cestui que trust”.

The Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act’s use of obscure legalese (adopted without change by Florida) may also explain why the trial court judge in the linked-to case dismissed a claim for declaratory judgment filed by a trust beneficiary (i.e., a cestui que trust), when F.S. § 86.041 specifically authorizes a cestui que trust to file these sorts of claims. Anyway, we now have an appellate opinion confirming what should be an obvious point of statutory construction. Here’s how the 4th DCA summed up its ruling:

Section 86.041, Florida Statutes (2007) provides, in part:

Any person interested as or through an executor, administrator, trustee, guardian, or other fiduciary, creditor, devisee, legatee, heir, next of kin, or cestui que trust, in the administration of a trust, a guardianship, or of the estate of a decedent, an infant, a mental incompetent, or insolvent may have a declaration of rights or equitable or legal relations in respect thereto:

(1) To ascertain any class of creditors, devisees, legatees, heirs, next of kin, or others; or

(2) To direct the executor, administrator, or trustee to refrain from doing any particular act in his or her fiduciary capacity; or

(3) To determine any question arising in the administration of the guardianship, estate, or trust, including questions of construction of wills and other writings.

Id. In King v. Pinellas Central Bank & Trust Co., 339 So.2d 712 (Fla. 2d DCA 1976), the court interpreted section 86.041 as follows:

This statute is specific that any person … may bring a suit for declaratory judgment to have his rights declared under the trust and to direct the trustee to refrain from doing any particular act in his fiduciary capacity. The trustee is presumed to protect the rights of all of the beneficiaries of a trust and, therefore, we hold that all antagonistic and adverse interests were before the court through the trustee.

Id. at 713. Furthermore, “[t]he declaratory judgment act is to be liberally administered and construed.” Dent v. Belin, 483 So.2d 61, 62 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986). Thus, we hold that pursuant to section 86.041, Fla. Stat., Cheryl, as a beneficiary and potentially wrongfully removed co-Trustee, has standing as an interested person to bring a cause of action for declaratory judgment in the present case.