Mark E. Swirbalus, Esq., Day Pitney LLP
The T&E Litigation Update is a recurring column summarizing recent trusts and estates case law. If you have question about this update or about T&E litigation generally, please feel free to e-mail the author by clicking on his name above.
Rivera v. Mackoul
In Rivera v. Mackoul, Case No. 10-P-1663, 2012 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 120 (Feb. 3, 2012), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court affirmed a judgment in favor of an estate planning attorney for fees incurred in a will contest, where the will was determined to be invalid pursuant to an agreement for judgment. The executors and heirs of the estate claimed that the attorney's negligence in preparing the will led to the will contest.
The decision is largely devoid of facts, but the Appeals Court expressly relied on the decision in Logotheti v. Gordon, 414 Mass. 308 (1993), where the Supreme Judicial Court held that (1) the mere foreseeability of harm was insufficient to impose a duty owed to potential heirs by an attorney who drafted a will where the potential heirs would be disinherited by the will, (2) the attorney's duty in drafting the will was to the decedent as his client, and (3) the attorney owed no duty to the heirs, who only inherited by intestate succession, because imposing such a duty would create conflicts of interest. The Appeals Court noted that the law in this area is clear in Massachusetts, and further noted that cases in other jurisdictions reaching the opposite conclusion involved a commonality of interest among the testator and all the devisees that has been frustrated by the attorney's failure to achieve the agreed objective of the testator.
Boyle v. Weiss
In Boyle v. Weiss, Case No. SJC-10933, 2012 Mass. LEXIS 33 (Feb. 16, 2012), the Supreme Judicial Court answered the following certified question: "May the holder of a beneficial interest in a trust which holds title to real estate and attendant dwelling in which such beneficiary resides acquire an estate of homestead in said land and building under G.L. c. 188, § 1?" Confining its answer to the 2004 version of the homestead statute, the Court answered NO.
First, under the 2004 version, the beneficiary is not an "owner," as that term is defined in the statute, because she is not a sole owner, joint tenant, tenant by the entirety or tenant in common. Therefore, she holds no direct ownership interest in the property. Second, her beneficial interest in the trust holding title to the property does not indirectly endow her with an ownership interest. Rather, her beneficial interest, which gives her a right to a share of trust income, is a personal property interest. Third, the language in the statute pursuant to which an estate of homestead may be acquired by someone who rightfully possesses the property "by lease or otherwise" does not give the beneficiary, who is occupying the property as a tenant at will, the privilege of claiming a homestead exemption.
Finally, the Court rejected the beneficiary's argument that the 2010 version of the homestead statute, which expands the definition of "owner" to include holders of life estates and holders of beneficial interests, was a mere clarification of the 2004 version. Instead, the Court held that this expanded definition is a change in the law to which the beneficiary could not avail herself, because she filed her homestead declaration one year before the 2010 version went into effect.
Cassell v. Christian Science Board of Directors
In Cassell v. Christian Science Board of Directors, Case No. 11-P-453, 2012 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 173 (Feb. 15, 2012), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court affirmed the probate court's dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Plaintiff was excommunicated from the First Church of Christ, Scientist. She filed suit in probate court against members of the church's board of directors, seeking reinstatement and an affirmative injunction that the board "abide by all terms and conditions of the Governing Documents, including the Deeds of Trust and Church Manual." Plaintiff argued that probate court was the proper forum for her complaint because Mary Baker Eddy founded the church as a trust, pursuant to a deed of trust, and thus that the board consists of trust fiduciaries.
The probate court disagreed, and the Appeals Court affirmed, holding that Mary Baker Eddy's deed of trust was for the purpose of conveying land, not to establish judicial policing of church membership. The Court also held that excommunication is a form of internal discipline covered by the "church autonomy doctrine," which provides that both congregational and hierarchical churches are entitled to autonomy over church disputes touching on matters of doctrine, canon law, policy, discipline and ministerial relationships, and that the First Amendment forbids courts from interfering with a church's internal governance or the excommunication of its members.
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