Covenant Trust Co. v. Guardianship of Ihrman, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 3564731 (Fla. 4th DCA Sept. 15, 2010)

Clients and lawyers alike must contend with an underfunded court system where procedural due process is often viewed as an unnecessary luxury. So what can you do? First, make sure you do your part to help your judge do his part (see Persuading a Cold Judge). Second, insist on evidentiary hearings (not just argument of counsel) to decide contested issues of fact. Sounds like pretty basic stuff; you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t happen: click here, here, here, here.

Evidence, Evidence, Evidence . . .

In this case a probate judge entered multiple orders — all on issues clearly requiring evidentiary hearings — based on nothing other than argument of counsel. Not surprisingly the 4th DCA reversed all of these orders. The obvious take-away from this case is that evidentiary hearings matter. The less obvious point — but really the more important one — is that it’s up to counsel to make sure they anticipate the tendency in probate proceedings to bypass evidentiary hearings and compensate accordingly. Your worst enemy is the rushed 15-minute hearing where the judge ends up entering an order that takes you the next 12 months to get reversed on appeal.

In this case Covenant Trust Company, an Illinois corporate trustee, got sucked into a contested Florida guardianship proceeding when it received a petition in the mail (i.e., no legal service of process) from the Florida guardian accusing it of breaching its fiduciary duties and asking the Florida probate judge to immediately take control of the trust by, among other things, ordering the trustee to pay guardianship-related expenses in Florida and ordering the trustee to no longer use trust funds to pay its lawyers.

Here’s how the 4th DCA deconstructed each of the probate court’s rulings: all of which were reversed for lack of evidence.

[1] Can a court haul a foreign trustee into a Florida court without evidence? NO

The Illinois trustee argued it shouldn’t be subject to the Florida court’s jurisdiction because it didn’t have enough contacts with Florida to fall under F.S. 48.193, our long-arm statute. Both sides filed conflicting affidavits on this issue, as required under Florida law. Once you have conflicting affidavits, the trial court is required to conduct an evidentiary hearing to sort it all out. That didn’t happen.

Here, Guardian’s and Covenant’s affidavits cannot be reconciled, as Guardian attested Covenant conducted business in Florida, and Covenant denied this. The trial court only held hearings and decided the issue based on the attorneys’ arguments. See Ralph v. McLaughlin, 756 So.2d 240, 241 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000) (where trial court only heard the arguments of counsel before deciding the motions to dismiss based on lack of personal jurisdiction, the Second District, pursuant to Venetian Salami, reversed and remanded the case so the trial court could hold a limited evidentiary hearing on the minimum contacts issue to resolve the conflicting affidavits); Sonson v. Hearn, 17 So.3d 745, 747 n. 1 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) (citing Leon Shaffer Golnick Adver., Inc. v. Cedar, 423 So.2d 1015, 1017 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982)) (unsworn statements by an attorney at a hearing do not establish facts upon which the trial court can rely). Therefore, the trial court erred by not conducting a limited evidentiary hearing to determine if Covenant had the required minimum contacts to expect to be haled into court in Florida. See Golant v. German Shepherd Dog Club of Am., Inc., 26 So.3d 60, 62-63 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010) (with regard to minimum contacts, due process is met if a non-resident defendant would reasonably anticipate being haled into a Florida court).

Even assuming the Florida court had jurisdiction over the Illinois trustee, it still had to contend with Florida’s special venue statute for trust litigation: F.S. 736.0205. Under this statute the presumption is that you have to sue foreign trustees in their home states (click here, here, here). According to the 4th DCA, the trial court seems to have skipped this point too.

Assuming the trial court has the requisite in personam jurisdiction, Covenant argues section 736.0205 requires this action be brought in Illinois, unless all parties could not be bound by litigation in the courts where the trust is registered. . . . It is not clear from the record if “all interested parties could not be bound by litigation in the courts of the state where the trust is registered or has its principal place of administration.” Thus, if the trial court determines it has in personam jurisdiction, it will next need to determine if the interested parties could be bound by litigation in Illinois. . . . We reverse and remand the case to the trial court with directions to hold an evidentiary hearing on the issue of jurisdiction over Covenant.

[2] Can a court bar a trustee from using trust funds to pay its legal fees without evidence? NO

In trust litigation one of the biggest advantages a trustee-defendant has is its ability to pay for its legal defense with trust funds, while the plaintiff is left to pay for its side of the litigation out of its own pocket. Plaintiffs can level the playing field by getting the court to enter an order cutting the trustee off from trust funds to pay legal fees. This tactic was so troubling to Florida’s trustee community that in 2008 it resulted in a brand new stand-alone statute intended to make sure trustees weren’t unfairly treated in these proceedings: F.S. 736.0802(10). I wrote about the lead-up to this statute and its eventual passage here.

A key procedural protection built into F.S. 736.0802(10) is the trustee’s entitlement to an evidentiary hearing. Again, that didn’t happen. Again, the 4th DCA reversed. Here’s why:

To obtain an order prohibiting Covenant from paying any more attorney’s fees from the trust assets, section 736.0802(10)(b) states that the “party must make a reasonable showing by evidence in the record or by proffering evidence that provides a reasonable basis for a court to conclude that there has been a breach of trust.” No evidence was provided or proffered showing a breach of trust.  . . . Accordingly, the trial court erred in entering this order without making any such finding of breach of trust.

[3] Can a court force a trustee to pay guardianship fees without evidence of the payments being mandated or the trustee acting arbitrarily? NO 

It’s not unusual for probate courts to force the trustees of an incapacitated grantor’s revocable trust to pay for some or all of the grantor’s guardianship costs. This case demonstrates that although that practice may be common, it’s at odds with long-standing Florida law if done over the legitimate objections of the trustees. This is an important point all trustees involved in guardianship proceedings need to remember. Finally, when reading the 4th DCA’s analysis of this issue note again how we come back to the “no-evidence” theme.

In Cohen v. Friedland, 450 So.2d 905, 906 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984) (citing White v. Bacardi, 446 So.2d 150, 155 n. 5 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984)), the Third District explained that “[a] trustee, in the strictest sense, holds legal title to property which he administers for the named beneficiary in accordance with the terms of the instrument creating the trust.” The trust agreement provided that the beneficiary would receive the trust income and the trustees had sole discretion to invade the trust principal for the beneficiary’s maintenance, comfort, and welfare. Id. But “[i]n the absence of proof that the trustee has failed to perform, or has performed arbitrarily, a court is without authority to remove trust assets from control of the trustee to be administered by the court or other guardian.” Id.

In Giglio v. Perretta, 493 So.2d 470, 470 (Fla. 4th DCA 1986), we held the “trial court erred in requiring the trustee to use trust assets to reimburse the guardian of the trust beneficiary for guardianship administration expenses, attorneys fees, and other costs.” We explained that although paying some of these costs may have been allowed, in the trustee’s discretion, these payments were “not legally mandated by the trust provisions,” so the court had “no authority to compel the trustee to make such payments,” nor any authority for the attorney’s fees award. Id. (citing Cohen, 450 So.2d 905).

Further, in Johnson v. Guardianship of Singleton, 743 So.2d 1152, 1153 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999), the Third District, citing Cohen, held that there was “no statutory or other satisfactory legal justification for the award” of legal expenses, where the trial court ordered the trustee “to pay from trust assets the legal expenses incurred” by the guardian.

Here, Covenant, as trustee, was granted, within the trust provision, the discretion to make payments from the trust assets. There was no evidence that Covenant acted arbitrarily. Therefore, the court lacked the authority to order Covenant to remove trust assets. As explained in Giglio, these payments were not legally mandated in the trust terms. Further, as in Johnson, there was no statutory or other legal authority for the court to order the payments. Because the trust did not provide for the payment of attorney’s fees, and Covenant could make payments in its discretion for Lillian’s best interests, the court was without authority to order Covenant to pay Guardian’s attorney $10,000 from the trust assets.