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Recent Appeals Court Decision Highlights the Importance of Effective Estate Planning to Avoid Post-Mortem Litigation

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

By: Scott M. Zanolli

A recent Massachusetts Appeals Court decision highlights the importance of having a comprehensive estate plan in place to govern the distribution of assets after death. It is particularly important to ensure that there is a valid will in place when utilizing a trust to dictate the management and distribution of assets. Should either a will or trust be held invalid, or fail to comport with the applicable provisions of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code or the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code, some or all estate property could be subject to the Commonwealth’s laws of intestacy.

In Lesanto, et al. v. Lesanto, 2015 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 318, prior to his death, the decedent engaged an attorney to revoke a previously drafted trust and will to effectuate the disinheritance of his two adult children. After revoking the original trust instrument and drafting and executing a subsequent trust with new provisions regarding the disinheritance, the testator died before he could execute a will to pour over his assets into the new trust. After trial, a Probate and Family Court judge concluded that the second trust, "was intended to be an instrument in the nature of an amendment to the First Trust established [previously], and thus must be reformed to reflect the [testator’s] actual intent regarding same." Id. at 8. The new trust was therefore reformed rather than amended, and the adult children were effectively disinherited.

The testator’s children appealed, and despite the overwhelming evidence showing that the testator intended to disinherit them, the Massachusetts Appeals Court overturned the Trial Court’s decision. The Appeals Court stated that although intent of the testator is the “lodestar of testamentary construction, it cannot be used . . . to supply a missing clause or permit speculation as to what the [testator] might have intended had [he] foreseen or contemplated events as they actually turned out, but for which [he] had made no provision.” Lesanto at 11, quoting Schena v. Pagliuca, 9 Mass. App. Ct. 449, 452 (1980).

Additionally, the Court stated that in the past it has allowed for reformation of a trust under circumstances involving clear proof that a drafting error caused a trust to fail to conform to a settlor’s intent only in the context of fully completed estate plans. Id. at 12.  In this instance, the dispute arose due to neither a drafting error, nor to a failure on the part of the drafting attorney to understand the applicable law. Id. at 11. Rather, the estate plan did not effectuate the testator’s intent due to the decedent’s failure to execute a new will pouring over his assets into the new trust. Id. at 12. In such an instance, “[r]eformation of a trust instrument is not a remedy for failing to complete an estate plan, and specifically, for failing to execute a will.” Id.

The case demonstrates several important issues. First, courts are increasingly hesitant to intervene posthumously to correct errors in a decedent’s estate plan in a variety of situations. Second, this recent decision may embolden both heirs and devisees to challenge questionably drafted and constructed testamentary instruments through the probate litigation process. Finally, Lesanto highlights the importance of meticulously scrutinizing estate plans prior to execution, and of careful review and analysis of wills and trusts after the death of the testator for invalid provisions.

The attorneys at Pierce & Mandell are highly experienced in all forms of probate and fiduciary administration and dispute resolution. Please feel free to contact us with any questions.


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