Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
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In this dispute among four siblings over the ownership of 200 acres of farmland the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals reversing the order of the district court that the farmland be distributed to Neal Johnson and Thomas Johnson, holding that the court of appeals failed to apply well-settled common law.This dispute stemmed from the last will and testament of the aunt of the four siblings in this case - Neal, Thomas, Sylvia Perron, and Lee Johnson. The aunt, Hazel Bach, devised the farmland to Neal and Thomas based on certain conditions that were resolved in an agreement between the parties. Although Lee, acting as co-personal representative, refused to honor the agreement, the district court ordered that the farmland be distributed to Neal and Thomas. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Neal and Thomas were entitled to the 200 acres under Bach's will. View "In re Estate of Bach" on Justia Law

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Jones established a trust, naming his daughter (Spencer) as successor trustee. The property was the trust’s principal asset. Jones later married Grays-Jones, but did not amend the trust. Jones contracted to sell the property to CDI for $13.6 million. Jones died shortly thereafter. Months later, Grays-Jones petitioned for an interest in Jones’s estate as an omitted spouse. While the property was still in escrow, Grays-Jones and Spencer, as trustee, agreed the trust “shall pay to [Grays-Jones] a total of $3,000,000 . . . as her full and final settlement of [Grays-Jones’s] interest in the Estate. Payment of said amount shall be paid ... out of the escrow from the sale of the [property].” Grays-Jones would move out of Jones’s residence in exchange for $150,000, which would constitute “an advance against the total settlement.” A stipulated judgment incorporated the settlement. Spencer, as trustee, paid Grays-Jones $150,000; Grays-Jones moved out of Jones’s residence. The sale of the property fell through. Spencer did not pay Grays-Jones the outstanding $2.85 million.Grays-Jones sought to enforce the stipulated judgment, alleging Spencer frustrated the sale of the property. She requested the appointment of a temporary trustee to sell the residence and property. The trial court denied the petition, finding the settlement agreement unenforceable because the sale was a condition precedent. The court of appeal reversed. The settlement agreement contained a condition precedent as to the method of payment, but Spencer’s independent promise to pay $3 million is enforceable and remains payable upon the property’s sale. View "Estate of Jones" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the circuit court determining that Denise Schipke-Smeenk was not entitled to specific performance of an agreement she made with her husband that neither party would revoke their specific wills without the other's consent, holding that the circuit court erred in determining that the claim was not timely or properly presented.Denise and Neil Smeenk executed mutual wills in 2017 and the agreement at issue. In 2019, Neil executed a new will without Denise's consent. After Neil died, the circuit court appointed Denise as personal representative of Neil's estate and ordered the 2019 will to be probated. The circuit court denied Denise's motion seeking specific performance of the agreement, determining that the motion was not properly presented as a creditor claim and was untimely and that Denise was not entitled to specific performance. The Supreme Court reversed in part, holding that the circuit court (1) erred in determining that the claim was not timely and properly presented; but (2) correctly ruled that Denise was not entitled to specific performance. View "In re Estate of Smeenk" on Justia Law

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Allen earned a Ph.D. in physics from Yale University in 1965 and embarked on a successful career in the aerospace industry. He retired in 2004 and granted a financial power of attorney to his daughter, Key, when he and his wife experienced declining health and he could no longer manage their finances. For several years Key used the power of attorney to make withdrawals from Allen’s investment accounts held by affiliated investment firms (Brown). Five years later Allen revoked the power of attorney and sued Brown, raising contract and fiduciary-duty claims under Maryland law. He alleged that Key’s withdrawals (or some of them) were not to his benefit and that the investment companies should not have honored them.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Maryland Court of Appeals has clarified that a plaintiff may plead a claim for breach of fiduciary duty even when another cause of action (like breach of contract) is available to redress the conduct. . Still, the power of attorney shields Brown from liability for breach of fiduciary duty just as it does for breach of contract. Brown had no fiduciary obligation to refuse to carry out transactions authorized by the power of attorney. View "Allen v. Brown Advisory, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the district court granting a motion to approve a settlement agreement reached in mediation involving siblings Lily Smith and Sam, Dan, and Vernon Lindemulder, holding that Petitioners were not entitled to relief on their claims of error.The agreement at issue resolved claims involving the Alice M. Lindemulder Trust, established by the parties' mother, which held more than 2,000 acres of land in Stillwater County. Sam appealed the district court's decision to approve the settlement agreement, arguing that the agreement was unenforceable because he lacked the capacity to enter it and had been subjected to undue influence. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court (1) did not err in concluding that Sam validly consented to the agreement; and (2) did not err in holding that the agreement was valid and enforceable. View "Smith v. Lindemulder" on Justia Law

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Daniel Hsu (Daniel) asked the Court of Appeal to reverse the trial court’s decision denying him need-based attorney fees under California Family Code section 2030. This case was a marriage dissolution proceeding between Daniel and Christine Nakamoto (Christine; together, the spouses). But the dispute at issue was between Daniel and his two siblings, Charleson Hsu (Chau) and Melissa Hsu See (Melissa). After their parents passed away, Daniel claimed Chau was concealing a portion of his inheritance. The siblings met to discuss Daniel’s claims and reached an agreement at the meeting, which Daniel documented on a two-page handwritten memorandum. Among other things, the Handwritten Agreement stated Daniel was to be paid $4 million. Several months later, the three siblings executed a formal Compromise Agreement for Structured Settlement. The Compromise Agreement contained many of the terms set forth in the Handwritten Agreement but did not mention the $4 million payment. The spouses claimed Daniel was never paid the $4 million, which would have been a community asset, and that it was still owed to Daniel under the Handwritten Agreement. Chau and Melissa argued the Handwritten Agreement was not a binding contract and that Daniel had already been paid $4 million through a separate transaction outside the Compromise Agreement. Chau, Melissa, and several business entities they owned (together, claimants) were involuntarily joined to this dissolution proceeding to settle this dispute. At trial, the primary question facing the lower court was whether the Handwritten Agreement or the Compromise Agreement was the enforceable contract. The court found in favor of claimants, ruling the Compromise Agreement was enforceable while the Handwritten Agreement was not. Meanwhile, over the course of Daniel’s litigation against claimants, the court awarded him $140,000 in attorney fees under section 2030. After the court issued a tentative ruling finding the Handwritten Agreement was not enforceable, Daniel requested an additional $50,000 for attorney fees incurred during trial plus another $30,000 to appeal. The court denied his request. The Court of Appeal found no error in the attorney fees ruling. View "Marriage of Nakamoto and Hsu" on Justia Law

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Brandy filed a probate petition seeking to be appointed the personal representative of her late husband’s (Scott) estate. The trial court denied her petition based on a premarital agreement that waived Brandy’s interests in her husband’s separate property. The court named his parents as co-administrators of the estate. The court of appeal held Brandy was entitled to introduce extrinsic evidence in support of her argument that she and her late husband mistakenly believed the premarital agreement would apply only in the event of divorce, rather than upon death. On remand, the trial court found that the mistake was a unilateral mistake on Brandy’s part and that she was not entitled to rescission. The court expressly found “there was insufficient evidence that Scott encouraged or fostered Brandy’s mistaken belief.”The court of appeal affirmed. Because Brandy failed to read the agreement and meet with her attorney to discuss it before signing it, she bore the risk of her mistake and is not entitled to rescission. View "Estate of Eskra" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that the Virginia Uniform Arbitration Act, Va. Code 8.01-581.01 to -.016 (VUAA), and the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. 1-16 (FAA), do not compel enforcement of an arbitration clause in a trust.The decedent created an inter vivos irrevocable trust that was divided into three shares for his children and grandchildren. The trust contained an unambiguous arbitration clause. Plaintiff filed a complaint against Defendant, the trust's trustee, alleging breach of duty. Defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration, which the circuit court denied. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) a trust is neither a contract nor an agreement that can be enforced against a beneficiary; and (2) therefore, neither the VUAA nor the FAA compel arbitration. View "Boyle v. Anderson" on Justia Law

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After a woman died and left a will disposing of several parcels of real property and two trailers, her ex-husband — with whom she had maintained a romantic relationship following divorce — filed claims against the woman’s estate for those properties. He contended the decedent had transferred title to three of those parcels to him. He also claimed that they made an agreement about two parcels and the trailer that sat on them: he and the decedent would live there until their deaths, after which the properties would be sold and the proceeds given solely to their great-grandchild. The estate rejected these claims, invoking the statute of frauds. The superior court ruled in favor of the estate, finding that the ex-husband failed to prove the existence of contracts satisfying the statute of frauds and rejecting his alternative claims for restitution. On appeal, the ex-husband argued the proceedings were marred by procedural flaws, and challenged the superior court’s decision on the merits. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court largely affirmed the superior court’s decision, but remanded for further proceedings on the restitution claim involving one parcel. View "In the Matter of the Estate of Alexina Rodman" on Justia Law

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In 2001, Lavastone Capital LLC (Lavastone) entered into an agreement with Coventry First LLC (Coventry) to purchase “life settlements” – life-insurance policies sold on the secondary market. One was that of Beverly Berland. Lincoln Financial (Lincoln) issued the policy to Berland in 2006. But Berland did not act alone in acquiring it. A few months before, she approached a business called “Simba.” As Simba pitched it, the transaction allowed clients to “create dollars today by using a paper asset, (a life insurance policy not yet issued from a major insurance carrier insuring your life)” by selling it on the secondary market. Clients did not need to put up any money upfront. Instead, they got nonrecourse loans to finance the transactions, which allowed them to make all necessary payments without tapping into personal funds. The only collateral for the loan was the life-insurance policy itself. Berland agreed to participate in several transactions with Simba, profiting greatly. Lavastone kept the policy in force, paying all relevant premiums to Lincoln Financial. Upon Berland’s death more than seven years later, Lincoln paid Lavastone $5,041,032.06 in death benefits under the policy. In December 2018, Berland’s estate filed a complaint against Lavastone in the District Court, seeking to recover the death benefits that Lavastone received under 18 Del C. 2704(b). In 2020, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. In 2021, the District Court certified the three questions of law to the Delaware Supreme Court. The Supreme Court responded: (1) a death-benefit payment made on a policy that is void ab initio under 18 Del. C. 2704(a) and PHL Variable Insurance Co. v. Price Dawe 2006 Insurance Trust was made “under [a] contract” within the meaning of 18 Del. C. 2704(b); (2) so long as the use of nonrecourse funding did not allow the insured or his or her trust to obtain the policy “without actually paying the premiums” and the insured or his or her trust procured or effected the policy in good faith, for a lawful insurance purpose, and not as a cover for a wagering contract; and (3) an estate could profit under 18 Del. C. 2704(b) where the policy was procured in part by fraud on the part of the decedent and the decedent profited from the previous sale of the policy, if the recipient of the policy benefits cannot establish that it was a victim of the fraud. View "Lavastone Capital LLC v. Estate of Beverly E. Berland" on Justia Law