Jervis v. Tucker, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 385518 (Fla. 4th DCA February 08, 2012)

If you want to really understand what’s going on in this case you need to start at the basics and build up from there. The conceptual building blocks of this case are the following:

[1]  First, “an adjudication of incompetency shifts the burden of going forward with the evidence on testamentary capacity to the proponent of the [trust].” In re Estate of Ziy, 223 So.2d 42, 43 (Fla.1969); see also Grimes v. Estate of Stewart, 506 So.2d 465, 467 (Fla. 5th DCA 1987)(“Although a declared incompetent may have sufficient lucid moments during which to execute a valid [trust], nevertheless, adjudication of incompetency of a testator creates a prima facia case against the proponent of such a [trust].”).

[2]  Second, summary judgment is warranted when the clear text of the trust agreement supports your side of the argument. Why? Because as a matter of law the trial court is prohibited from considering extrinsic facts to explain/construe the clear text of a contested trust agreement. No extrinsic facts = no need for trial. See In re Estate of Barry, 689 So.2d 1186, 1187–88 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997) (“Where the terms of an agreement … are unambiguous, its meaning and the intent of the maker are discerned solely from the face of the document, as the language used and its plan [sic] meaning controls.”)

Case Study:

OK, now let’s apply these general principles to the facts of the case. The trust settlor, Bernice J. Meikle, executed a trust agreement in 1991. She later amended this trust agreement (we’re not told exactly when). According to the 4th DCA, this first amendment addressed Ms. Meikle’s ability to further amend her trust if she was ever adjudicated incapacitated.

[Key Trust Agreement Text:]

[T]he first amendment to Meikle’s trust contains language which provides for the suspension of rights “[i]f, at any time during the continuance of [the] trust, Grantor is adjudicated incapacitated by a court of appropriate jurisdiction.”

The Grantor’s powers and those of Grantor/Trustee may be restored either by virtue of [1] an order of an appropriate court having jurisdiction over Grantor, or [2] upon the issuance and receipt by the Trustee of a written opinion from . . . two . . . licensed physicians who have examined the Grantor.

Incapacity Adjudication:

On October 30, 2000, Ms. Meikle was adjudicated incapacitated. A little over a year later, on December 27, 2001, Ms. Meikle executed a second amendment to her trust agreement without [1] obtaining an approving court order, or [2] written opinions from two licensed physicians (oops!).

After Ms. Meikle’s death in 2007 the second amendment to her trust agreement was challenged (surprise!). Based on her adjudication of incapacity in 2000, Ms. Meikle was presumed incapacitated when she executed her second amendment in 2001. This evidentiary presumption can, however, be overcome at trial.

Carefully Reading Trust Text = Summary Judgment = No Trial = Happy Clients:

What can’t be overcome at trial is the clear text of the trust agreement. Here’s where counsel for the contestants nailed it. By focusing on the clear text of the trust agreement, he was able to skip a trial and win on summary judgment. Why? Because by its own terms the trust agreement required one of two preconditions to be satisfied for the second amendment to be valid. These requirements weren’t satisfied, thus the second amendment fails . . . regardless of whether or not Ms. Meikle did in fact have testamentary capacity. Thus no need for a trial.

[4th DCA:]

The plain meaning of the document shows that Meikle’s capacity must have been restored by the court in order to amend her trust once she was adjudicated incapacitated . . . Without a court order restoring her rights, she must have obtained two opinions by licensed physicians. . . . Dr. Button, a licensed physician who had met with Meikle many times, opined that she possessed capacity to amend the trust; however, Dr. Strang, a nursing home administrator with expert experience and medical schooling—but without a physician’s license—submitted the other opinion. This is contrary to what was unambiguously required.

. . . The first amendment to the trust, a valid amendment made before the determination that Meikle was incapacitated, expressly stated that certain things had to occur in order to restore capacity in the event the court declared Meikle incapacitated. Because the proper proof to restore capacity to amend was not presented by Meikle, she did not have the power to amend her trust at the time she did. Accordingly, no genuine issue of material fact exists, as it is clear that Meikle’s power to control her property was never restored.

An “insider’s” view:

For an insider’s view of this case, you’ll want to read this interview of one of the attorneys on the winning side of the case.