IF YOU CAN’T TRUST A TRUSTEE, WHO CAN YOU TRUST?

March 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

“In God we trust; all others pay cash.”  —  Graffiti

A trust is aptly named. Its grantor literally trusts the trustee to carry out his or her wishes with respect to the money or property placed in the trustee’s care.

In the case of Smiley v. Yllander, handed down December 11, 2012, by the COA, the chancellor found at trial that Jeanette Smiley had created a trust when she deeded her home and 140 acres to her nephew, Gary, and his wife, Mary Ann. The deed by which she conveyed the property included this provision:

This conveyance is executed trusting that Gary Lamar Smiley will follow the dictates of my Last Will and Testament with regard to the disposition of the above described property. In the event, however, that said Gary Lamar Smiley should predecease me, then, in that event, his executor/administrator shall follow the dictates and dispose of said property according to my Last Will and Testament.

By her express language, then, Jeanette trusted Gary to deal with her estate as directed in her will.

Alas, as sometimes happens, things did not go as Jeanette had envisioned. Gary and Mary Ann clearcut timber on property specifically reserved in the will for other family members, and the other family members sued, not only for the wrongful timber removal, but also alleging that Mary Ann had misappropriated over $100,000 of Jeanette’s money.

The chancellor found that the deed created a trust and awarded the plaintiffs $292,000 for removal of the timber, and another $44,000 for misappropriation.

Gary and Mary ann appealed.

The COA reversed and remanded the trust issue because the chancellor was unclear about the standard of proof that she applied. Judge Maxwell’s opinion is a good primer on the law of creation of trusts and the burden of proof required for each. Here’s what he wrote:

¶11. Generally, trusts are classified under two broad categories: (1) express trusts and (2) implied trusts. Express trusts arise from a party’s manifestation of an intention to establish such an agreement and are created by a trust instrument. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-9-103(a) (Supp. 2012). If the trust holds real property as an asset, the trust agreement must be in writing and signed by the grantor. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-9-1 (Rev. 2004); Alvarez v. Coleman, 642 So. 2d 361, 366-67 (Miss. 1994).

¶12. While an express trust must be written, implied trusts differ in that they arise by implication of the law or are presumed from the circumstances. Mississippi recognizes two types of implied trusts: (1) resulting trusts and (2) constructive trusts. A resulting trust “is designed to give effect to the unwritten but actual intention of the parties at the time of the acquisition of title to the affected property.” In re Estate of Gates, 876 So. 2d 1059, 1064 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004) (quoting Robert E. Williford, Trusts, 8 Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 73:2, at 422 (2001)). A constructive trust is a judicially imposed remedy used to prevent unjust enrichment when one party wrongfully retains title to property. McNeil v. Hester, 753 So. 2d 1057, 1064 (¶24) (Miss. 2000). The primary difference between the two is that “in a resulting trust, the acquisition . . . is mutually agreeable[,] and the inequity arises out of the trustee’s subsequent unwillingness to honor the terms of the parties’ original agreement”; whereas a constructive trust may be imposed when “acquisition of title is somehow wrongful as to the purported beneficiary[.]” Simmons v. Simmons, 724 So. 2d 1054, 1057 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998).

¶13. Here, the chancellor found a trust existed but did not distinguish the particular type. Though both parties insist the chancellor imposed a constructive trust, or something akin to it, a plain reading of her order shows she likely found Jeanette had intended to create an express trust by executing the deed “trusting” Gary would follow the dictates of her will—which did in fact leave the ninety-acre tract to the plaintiffs. According to the chancellor, the deed “was subject to the terms of the will and did not serve to vest fee title in the Smiley Defendants.” That the chancellor likely believed an express trust, rather than implied trust, arose is further supported by her finding that Gary and Mary Ann had “knowingly and willfully violated the explicit terms of that trust.”

¶14. But regardless of the type of trust implicated, “to establish a trust, the evidence must be more than a mere preponderance. The proof must be clear and convincing.” Lee v. Yeates, 256 So. 2d 371, 372 (Miss. 1976) (emphasis added). And here, it is not at all obvious whether this standard was employed. We note that in the chancellor’s order indicates she found:

Plaintiffs have met their burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence on all necessary elements and are entitled to recover for the wrongful removal of the timber from the acres devised to them under the terms of the will. Even though the property was conveyed to the Smiley Defendants, such conveyance was specifically subject to a trust for Plaintiffs’ benefit, and the Smiley Defendants knowingly and willfully violated the explicit terms of that trust. (Emphasis added).

While the chancellor may have indeed considered the trust issue separately under the clear-and-convincing-evidence standard, she did not specifically say so in her order. This omission, coupled with the chancellor’s reference to the preponderance standard when describing the burden of proof “on all necessary elements,” supports our decision to remand to ensure the chancellor considers the trust issue under the clear-and-convincing-evidence standard. See Estate of Langston v. Williams, 57 So. 3d 618, 622 (¶17) (Miss. 2011).

Aside from the nifty trust-law-in-a-nutshell aspect of this case, it illustrates what can happen when the trial judge applies the wrong standard of proof or is unclear whether she applied the right standard. You can avoid this kind of result by offering to do proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law that set out and cite authority for the appropriate standard. Or, if you aren’t that industrious, timely file an MRCP 59 motion asking the judge whether she really meant “clear and convincing” rather than preponderance, and cite a supporting case or two. It might just save you a retrial.

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