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Wellin v. Wellin

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

December 19, 2019

WENDY C.H. WELLIN, as Special Administrator of the Estate of Keith S. Wellin and as Trustee of the Keith S. Wellin Florida Revocable Living Trust u/a/d December 11, 2001, Plaintiff,
v.
PETER J. WELLIN, CYNTHIA W. PLUM AND MARJORIE W. KING, individually and as co-Trustees and beneficiaries of the Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust, u/a/d November 2, 2009, and FRIENDSHIP MANAGEMENT, LLC, Defendants. LARRY S. MCDEVITT, as Trust Protector of the Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust, Plaintiff,
v.
PETER J. WELLIN, CYNTHIA W. PLUM AND MARJORIE W. KING, individually and as co-Trustees and beneficiaries of the Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust, u/a/d November 2, 2009, FRIENDSHIP MANAGEMENT, LLC, and CYNTHIA W. PLUM as manager of Friendship Management, LLC, Defendants. PETER J. WELLIN, CYNTHIA W. PLUM AND MARJORIE W. KING, individually and as co-Trustees and beneficiaries of the Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust Counterclaim Plaintiffs,
v.
LARRY S. MCDEVITT, as Trust Protector of the Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust, LESTER SCHWARTZ as Trust Protector of the Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust, u/a/d November 2, 2009, and WENDY C.H. WELLIN, as Special Administrator of the Estate of Keith S. Wellin, Counterclaim Defendants. PETER J. WELLIN, CYNTHIA W. PLUM AND MARJORIE W. KING, individually and as co-Trustees and beneficiaries of the Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust, u/a/d November 2, 2009, FRIENDSHIP MANAGEMENT, LLC, Plaintiffs,
v.
WENDY WELLIN, individually and as Trustee of the Keith S. Wellin Florida Revocable Living Trust u/a/d December 11, 2001, Defendant, and Hamilton College, Defendant-Intervenor,

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment. Peter J. Wellin (“Peter”), Cynthia Wellin Plum (“Ceth”), Marjorie Wellin King (“Marjorie”) - in their individual capacities, their capacities as co-Trustees, and their capacities as beneficiaries Wellin Family 2009 Irrevocable Trust (“2009 Irrevocable Trust”) (collectively, the “Wellin children”) have filed a motion for summary judgment as to the invalidity of five certain amendments to the Keith S. Wellin (“Keith”) Florida Revocable Living Trust u/a/d December 11, 2001 (“2001 Revocable Trust”) purportedly executed between June 20, 2013 and June 27, 2014 (“2013-14 amendments”). ECF No. 472-1 at 2.[1]

         For the reasons stated below, the court denies the Wellin Children's motion for summary judgment as to the invalidity of the 2013-14 amendments.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Because the nature of this case, the court will dispense with a recitation of facts and include only a procedural history of the matters at hand.

         The motion for summary judgment as to the invalidity of the 2013-14 amendments was filed by the Wellin children on November 13, 2017. ECF No. 472. Wendy C.H. Wellin, as Trustee of the 2001 Revocable Trust (“trustee Wendy”), and individually (“Wendy”, together with trustee Wendy, the “Estate”) responded on December 14, 2017, ECF Nos. 491, 493, and Hamilton College filed a memorandum in opposition on December 20, 2017, ECF No. 492. The Wellin children replied to the responses by the Estate and memorandum in opposition by Hamilton College on January 4, 2018, ECF No. 500. Hamilton College filed an additional reply to the Wellin children's reply on February 20, 2018, ECF No. 518, and the Estate filed an additional reply to the Wellin children's reply on February 28, 2018, ECF No. 524. The motion is now ripe for the court's review.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment shall be granted “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). “By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Id. at 248. “[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 249. The court should view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all inferences in its favor. Id. at 255.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Amendments to the 2001 Revocable Trust[2]

         The Wellin children argue the court should grant summary judgment declaring the 2013-14 amendments invalid because the Estate failed to adhere to the terms of the 2001 Revocable Trust by not delivering the 2013-14 amendments to the successor Trustee until after the Keith's death.[3], [4] ECF No. 472-1 at 2. The Estate and Hamilton College contend the court should deny summary judgment as to the invalidity of the 2013-14 amendments because delivery to the successor Trustee was not a requirement to make an amendment to the 2001 Revocable Trust effective. ECF No. 491 at 13; ECF 492 at 2. If the court finds that delivery to the successor Trustee is required for an amendment to be valid, the Estate argues that there is no time requirement for when such delivery must be made, and the court should deny summary judgment as to the invalidity of the 2013-14 amendments because delivery of the 2013-14 amendments was eventually made. ECF No. 491 at 21. The Estate and Hamilton College also reason the court should deny summary judgment as to the invalidity of the 2013-14 amendments because the 2001 Revocable Trust did not specifically define Peter as successor Trustee and since successor trustee is a term of art, delivery to Peter is irrelevant to determining the 2013- 14 amendments' effectiveness. ECF No. 518 at 2; ECF No. 524 at 2.

         All parties agree that the 2013-14 amendments are governed by Florida law because of the 2001 Revocable Trust's governing law provision. ECF No. 472-1 at 5; ECF No. 491 at 3; ECF No. 492 at 8. “A federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction is obliged to apply the substantive law of the state in which it sits, including the state's choice-of-law rules.” Volvo Constr. Equip. N. Am., Inc. v. CLM Equip. Co., Inc., 386 F.3d 581, 599-600 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 79 (1938). Under South Carolina choice of law rules, “if the parties to a contract specify the law under which the contract shall be governed, the court will honor this choice of law.” Russell v. Wachovia Bank, N.A., 578 S.E.2d 329, 336 (S.C. 2003). Because the validity of the 2013-14 amendments must be determined by the court performing an interpretation of the 2001 Revocable Trust agreement and all parties agree such an interpretation falls within the scope of the 2001 Revocable Trust's governing law provision, the court shall perform its analysis under Florida law.

         The interpretation of a trust is normally a matter of law that is determined by the court. See In re Standard Jury Instructions--Contract & Bus. Cases, 116 So.3d 284, 315 (Fla. 2013) (citing Smith v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 231 So.2d 193, 194 (Fla. 1970)) (“The interpretation of a contract is normally a matter of law that is determined by the court.”); Fla. Stat. Ann. § 736.0201(4)(a) (“A judicial proceeding involving a trust may relate to the validity a trust, including [d]etermin[ing] the validity of all or part of a trust.”). “Under certain circumstances, however, such as when the terms of a [trust] are ambiguous or susceptible to different interpretations, an issue of fact is presented which should be submitted to the jury.” In re Standard Jury Instructions--Contract & Bus. Cases, 116 So.3d 284 at 315; see also Harkless v. Laubhan, 219 So.3d 900, 910 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016) (“Contract interpretation is for the court as a matter of law, rather than the trier of fact, only when the agreement is totally unambiguous, or when any ambiguity may be resolved by applying the rules of construction to situations in which the parol evidence of the parties' intentions is undisputed or non-existent.”)

         Under Florida law, “the polestar of trust interpretation is the settlor[‘s] intent.” Vigliani v. Bank of Am., N.A., 189 So.3d 214, 219 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016) (citing Roberts v. Sarros,920 So.2d 193, 195 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2006)). A court determines “the settlor's intent from the plain and ordinary meaning of the terms set forth in the Trust instrument.” Horgan v. Cosden, 249 So.3d 683, 686 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2018), reh'g denied (June 29, 2018), review denied, 2018 WL 3650268 (Fla. July 30, 2018) (citing Nelson v. Nelson, 206 So.3d 818, 819 (Fla. Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016)). “If the language in the trust is unambiguous, the settlor's intent as expressed therein controls and the court cannot rely on extrinsic evidence.” Vigliani v. Bank of Am., N.A., 189 So.3d 214 at 219. To determine the settlor's intent, “the court should construe ‘the instrument as a whole, taking into account the general dispositional scheme.” Id. (quoting Pounds v. Pounds,703 So.2d 487, 488 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997)). The ...


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