Shea v. Gaither 389 S.W.3d 725 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013)

Factual Background:

Grantor created a lifetime trust and named her nephews as beneficiaries. Grantor named her late husband’s niece and the niece’s husband as trustees. In June 2007, Grantor purportedly executed several amendments to the trust which the beneficiaries claim were not properly executed. These amendments gave property to the trustees and other persons, including family members of the trustees. The property conveyed by these amendments included two farms. Grantor died shortly thereafter.

The beneficiaries sued the trustees seeking a number of remedies. Following a consent judgment that dismissed a number of claims and parties, the beneficiaries filed an amended petition seeking a declaratory judgment voiding the amendment based on undue influence and failure to comply with the express terms of the trust, and seeking to set aside the deed conveying one of the farms. Meanwhile, the trustees filed a final accounting in accordance with the consent judgment. The beneficiaries filed objections to this accounting.

Warren County Circuit Court, Hamlett, J., Held:

The court issued its judgment on the final accounting and ruled that “this Judgment is final for the purpose of appeal pursuant to Section 512.020 RSMo.” The trustees appealed, though the action involving the gifts of the farms remained pending at the time of appeal.

Court of Appeals, Mooney, J., Held:

Dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Appellate review requires a final judgment and where the judgment lacks finality, the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case. A final, appealable judgment leaves nothing for future determination. The only exception is under Rule 74.01(b) where a trial court may enter judgment on a single claim and certify its judgment as final and appealable upon an express determination that no just reason for delay exists.

Here, the trial court did not designate its judgment as a final judgment under Rule 74.01(b) and made no express finding that there was no reason for delay. Even if the court had made an express finding of no reason for delay, the designation would have been improper. Rule 74.01 requires “one claim” to be disposed of. The trial court did not dispose of “one claim” here, but instead merely entered judgment on the final accounting, disposing of one of several remedies. The court considered the “claims” to be breach of fiduciary duty and self-dealing by the trustees. The final accounting alone did not dismiss either claim and was interwoven with the open issue of the deeds to the farms. Thus, the judgment was not final and not appealable.

Watermann v. Eleanor E. Fitzpatrick Revocable Living Trust, 369 S.W.3d 69 (Mo. App. E.D. 2012)

Factual Background:

Settlor died, survived by Daughter, the plaintiff, and her three sons and their families, the defendants.  Settlor executed a will in 1996 leaving her assets to all four children in equal shares.  In May of 2007, Settlor sent a written request to her bank removing Daughter as a beneficiary on 3 CDs.  The same week, Settlor met with her attorney and asked to exclude Daughter from her St. Charles property due to their long-standing, troubled relationship.  As a result, Settlor’s attorney prepared a new Trust whereby Settlor’s St. Charles property would be split among her sons while Settlor’s Franklin County property and the residue of her estate were to be divided among all four children, including Daughter.  The Trust also included a no-contest clause providing that if any beneficiary contested the trust, they would be entitled to one dollar and all other provisions in favor of that beneficiary would be cancelled.

Daughter sued for an accounting, removal of trustee, imposition of a constructive trust, and damages for tortious interference. Defendants counterclaimed, seeking $25,000 under the trust’s no-contest clause.

Franklin County Circuit Court, Hoven, J., Held:

Following a bench trial, the court entered judgment for the defendants and awarded them $24,999 on their counterclaim.  Plaintiff appealed.

Court of Appeals, Crane, P.J., Held:

Affirmed.  Daughter argued that the 2007 changes were the result of undue influence and that the trial court misapplied the law of “mental competency” to this claim.  While a finding of mental competency does not preclude a finding of undue influence, a settlor’s mental and physical condition is highly material to the issue of undue influence; therefore a trial court may consider evidence of a settlor’s mental competency in such a case.

Further, Daughter argued she established elements that give rise to a presumption of undue influence.  However, the prima facie case for a presumption of undue influence is for use in a jury-tried case.  In a court-tried case, the court has considerable discretion, and even if a plaintiff makes a prima facie case, it does not mean she is entitled to recover.

Finally, Daughter argued the court ignored overwhelming evidence of undue influence because Settlor and one of her sons had a confidential relationship.  However, the mere existence of a confidential relationship is not sufficient to prove undue influence.  Non-coercive influence that does not deprive the settlor of her free agency is not improper.

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