JILL KELLY; JEFF FALKENTHAL; and JUDY L. MORS-KOTRBA, as successor trustee, Appellants,
DONNA LINDENAU, Appellee.
FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF
from the Circuit Court for Manatee County; Gilbert Smith,
F. Spivey of Spivey & Fallon, P.A., Sarasota, for
Appellants Jill Kelly and Jeff Falkenthal.
H. Carter of Dunlap & Moran, P.A., Sarasota, for
Appellant Judy L. Mors-Kotrba.
A. Wallace, Morgan R. Bentley, and Amanda R. Kison of Bentley
& Bruning, P.A., Sarasota, for Appellee.
appellants, Jill Kelly (Jill), Jeff Falkenthal (Jeff), and
Judy L. Mors-Kotrba (Judy), as successor trustee, appeal a
final judgment reforming a trust and requiring Judy to
transfer title to real property to a trust beneficiary, the
appellee, Donna Lindenau. Below, Judy petitioned for a
declaratory judgment in her capacity as successor trustee of
a trust created by the decedent, Ralph Falkenthal
(Ralph). Judy alleged that two amendments to the
trust were not signed by two witnesses as required by Florida
law. Lindenau then filed a counterclaim seeking reformation
of the trust in relation to the second amendment. Following a
bench trial, the trial court denied the petition for a
declaratory judgment, granted Lindenau's counterclaim,
and ordered Judy to transfer the subject real property to
Lindenau. Because we conclude that the amendments to the
trust were not validly executed and, as a result, that
reformation of the trust could not occur, we reverse the
created his revocable trust in December 2006 while he still
resided in Illinois. The trust was validly executed pursuant
to Illinois law. The trust provided that upon his death, the
trust assets would be distributed to his wife. In the event
that she predeceased him, they would be evenly distributed to
his three children, Jill, Jeff, and Judy. Ralph's wife
predeceased him, and Ralph subsequently moved to Florida.
2009, Ralph met Lindenau. In 2010, Ralph purchased a house
located in Bradenton, and he resided there with Lindenau.
Subsequently, Ralph executed a first amendment to the trust
on October 25, 2012, the testamentary aspects of which are
irrelevant to this appeal. On December 18, 2014, Ralph executed a
second amendment that modified the trust to provide for a
specific devise to Jeff of a Sarasota residence. The second
amendment also provided for a specific devise of the
Bradenton residence to Lindenau. No other changes were made
to the remaining trust residue. At the time of execution of
both the first and second amendments, Ralph resided in
Florida. Yet, both amendments were prepared by Ralph's
Illinois attorney, and the parties have not disputed
Lindenau's assertion that the amendments were prepared in
accordance with Illinois law. Even though the amendments were
executed in the presence of two witnesses, they were only
signed by one of the witnesses.
died on February 7, 2015, whereupon the trust became
irrevocable. Judy, in her capacity as successor trustee, then
filed a petition for declaratory judgment to determine the
validity of the first and second amendments. Lindenau filed
her counterclaim, which she later amended, seeking a
reformation of the trust in relation to the second amendment.
Lindenau argued that the error in failing to have two
witnesses sign the second amendment was a mistake of law. In
the alternative, Lindenau argued for the imposition of a
constructive trust in her favor regarding the Bradenton
and Jeff filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that
the amendments were invalid because they were not executed in
accordance with Florida law. They also argued that
reformation was not appropriate because Lindenau was not
seeking to reform trust provisions already contained within
the trust but was instead seeking to validate the otherwise
invalid amendment. The trial court denied the motion for
summary judgment. The case proceeded to a bench trial with
the trial court ultimately granting Lindenau's
reformation request pursuant to section 736.0415, Florida
Statutes (2016), and ordering Judy, as successor trustee, to
transfer the Bradenton house to Lindenau within ten days of
the final judgment. This appeal followed, and the trial court
granted a stay of the transfer of the Bradenton house pending
the outcome of this appeal.
is no dispute that Ralph's intent was to leave the
Bradenton house to Lindenau. There is also no dispute that
the second amendment was only signed by one of the witnesses.
Rather, the dispute focuses on whether an improperly executed
trust amendment can be validated through reformation pursuant
to section 736.0415. The trial court concluded that section
736.0415 permitted reformation in this case because Lindenau
met her burden of proving that "the accomplishment of
the settlor's intent was affected by a mistake in
law." Because the trial court's conclusion rests on
a question of law, we review the ...