Darian v. Weymouth, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 5554786 (Fla. 4th DCA Nov 16, 2011)

James Hughes and Martha Mayfield were married in 1999. They both had children from prior marriages. Prior to getting married, they entered into a prenuptial agreement. The terms of that prenuptial agreement may or may not have addressed testamentary gifts. The 4th DCA doesn’t tell us. Anyway, Mr. Hughes subsequently executed a revocable trust that richly provided for Mrs. Hughes. According to the 4th DCA:

Upon his death, Martha would receive the family home in Florida, the country home in North Carolina, a sum of one million dollars, the contents of the residences, and various other items of personal property.

The couple was tragically murdered on September 3, 2004 by Thomas Kleingartner, Mrs. Hughes’s adopted son from a prior marriage. Both died as a result of gunshot wounds to the head. Click here, here and here for more on this terrible crime and the ensuing criminal trial.

Because the coroner was unable to determine which spouse predeceased the other, pursuant to F.S. 732.601(1) the probate court deemed their deaths to be simultaneous and entered an order to that effect in the probate of Mr. Hughes’ estate. Accordingly, Mr. Hughes’ property was to be disposed of as if he survived Mrs. Hughes.

The order of death wouldn’t have mattered in this case if F.S. 736.1106(2) had applied (the antilapse statute applicable to Florida trusts). Under that statute, Mrs. Hughes’ heirs would have inherited her share of Mr. Hughes’ estate, regardless of who survived who. However, this particular trust fell between the cracks of Florida’s current and prior antilapse statute, thus the much harsher common law rule applied.

First, we note that the common law controls this case. Section 736.1106(2), Florida Statutes, Florida’s antilapse statute, applies only to trusts which became irrevocable on or after July 1, 2009. Section 737.6035(2)(c), Florida Statutes, Florida’s previous antilapse statute, applied only to trusts executed on or after June 12, 2003. The James E. Hughes Living Trust was executed in August of 2000 and became irrevocable in September of 2004. Thus, neither statute controls.

At common law, lapse occurs when the beneficiary or the devisee under the trust predeceases the grantor, invalidating the gift. The gift would instead revert to the residuary estate or be granted under the law of intestate succession. Bottom line, Mrs. Hughes’ heirs get nothing under the common law rule.

Mrs. Hughes heirs tried to salvage their claim to Mr. Hughes’ estate by claiming that her share of Mr. Hughes’ revocable trust had somehow vested at the time Mr. Hughes executed the document. There was a lot of money at stake here, so you can see why Mrs. Hughes’ heirs would take a shot at making this argument . . . and at the trial court level it actually worked!? Not surprisingly, the 4th DCA saw things differently and reversed, again leaving Mrs. Hughes’ heirs with nothing.

In Florida, the creation of a living trust, standing alone, is not an event which vests the interests provided by a trust agreement. Travis et. Al. v. Ashton et al., 156 Fla. 529, 23 So.2d 725, 727 (Fla.1945) (holding that beneficiary of trust deed who predeceased grantors did not receive a vested interest at time of trust creation. Where element of futurity was annexed to substance of gift rather than enjoyment of it, vesting was suspended and the gift was “contingent .”); Brundage v. Bank of Am., 996 So.2d 877, 882 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008) (stating that the settlor of a revocable trust, of which he is the sole beneficiary until death, may change or revoke the trust at any time); Fla. Nat’l. Bank of Palm Beach Cty. v. Genova, 460 So.2d 895, 897 (Fla.1984) (stating that beneficiaries of revocable living trust do not come into possession of trust property until the death of the settlor, and even then their interest is contingent upon the settlor not exercising the power to revoke). A beneficiary’s interest in a trust vests upon the death of the settlor. Sorrels v. McNally, 89 Fla. 457, 105 So. 106, 107 (Fla.1925).

In this case, no sufficient event existed to vest Mrs. Hughes’ interest in the Trust prior to her husband’s death. In Travis, the Florida Supreme Court held that an intended beneficiary’s interest is suspended during the life of the grantor. 23 So.2d at 726. The intended beneficiary’s interest lapses should the beneficiary predecease the grantor. Id. Mr. Hughes was the sole trustee and beneficiary under the Trust during his life. Mrs. Hughes was among the contingent residual beneficiaries whose interest came into creation only upon the death of Mr. Hughes and who were entitled to distribution of the then remaining corpus of the trust. Because it was judicially determined that Mrs. Hughes predeceased her husband, her interest in the Trust lapsed upon her death.

Lesson learned?

When a couple dies in a car accident or due to some other tragic event, it can be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine who died first, since they both died within moments of each other. It usually doesn’t matter. In this case, it mattered big time for Mrs. Hughes’ heirs. If they knew then what they know now, Mrs. Hughes’ heirs might have pushed the coroner a little harder to make a call on who died first, or maybe hired their own independent expert to make the determination. Coroner and medical examiner offices have been especially hard hit by budget cuts; you don’t have to accept their conclusions as gospel [click here]. In hindsight, the 2004 coroner’s report in this case, which was probably viewed as a non-event at the time, was outcome determinative. No one said practicing law was easy.