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Rachins v. Minassian

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

July 11, 2018

REBECCA RACHINS and RICHARD MINASSIAN, Appellants,
v.
PAULA M. MINASSIAN, individually, and as Trustee of the Zaven Minassian Trust dated December 29, 1999, as amended and restated July 16, 2008, and THE ANDERSEN LAW FIRM, PC, Appellees.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County; Charles M. Greene, Judge; L.T. Case No. PRC 12-1320.

          James A. Herb of the Herb Law Firm, Chartered, Boca Raton, for appellants.

          Thomas F. Luken of The Andersen Law Firm, Fort Lauderdale, for Appellee Paula M. Minassian.

          Donald H. Benson of Bradham, Benson, Lindley, Blevins, Bayliss & Wyatt of Florida East Coast, P.L.L.C., Fort Lauderdale, for Appellee The Andersen Law Firm, P.C.

          Taylor, J.

         The decedent's adult children, Rebecca Rachins and Richard Minassian (hereinafter the "children"), appeal a partial final order dismissing multiple counts of their Amended Trust Complaint on the ground that they lacked standing to bring any claims against Paula Minassian, who was the decedent's wife at the time of his death, or against the Andersen Law Firm, the attorneys who prepared the relevant trust document.[1] We reverse, concluding that the children are qualified beneficiaries of the Family Trust and therefore have standing to challenge the wife's administration of the Family Trust.

         Most of the salient facts of this case are set forth in our opinion in Minassian v. Rachins, 152 So.3d 719 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014). Zaven Minassian (the "husband") executed a Restatement of Trust in 2008, which superseded an earlier 1999 trust document. Id. at 720. In the 2008 Restatement of Trust document (the "original trust document"), the husband created a revocable trust (the "original trust"), which would become irrevocable upon his death. Id. The husband and the wife were the sole trustees of the original trust. Id.

         The husband died in 2010. Id. Because the wife survived the husband, and because the federal estate tax was not in effect at the time of the husband's death, the original trust document directed that all remaining trust property be distributed to a Family Trust. Id. at 721.

         The original trust document empowered the wife, as trustee, to distribute income and principal of the Family Trust to herself, in her sole and absolute discretion, for her "health, education, and maintenance." Id. Upon the death of the wife, the Family Trust would terminate, and the remainder of the Family Trust would be divided into a separate trust share for each of the children. Id.

         Soon after the husband's death in 2010, the children filed a complaint against the wife, alleging that she was improperly administering the Family Trust. Id. at 720. The wife moved to dismiss the children's complaint, arguing that they lacked standing because they were not beneficiaries of the Family Trust. Id. at 721. The children countered that they had standing because the trust provisions did not create a new trust, but instead created separate shares in the existing Family Trust for each child upon the wife's death. Id. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss. Id.

         The wife later appointed a "trust protector," as allowed by the terms of the original trust. Id. at 722. The trust protector was authorized to amend the provisions of the original trust if the amendment would either benefit the beneficiaries or further the husband's probable wishes. Id. Accordingly, the trust protector purported to amend the original trust to clarify that, if there was any property remaining upon the death of the wife and the termination of the Family Trust, the remaining property would be disbursed to a new trust to be created for the benefit of the children. Id.

         The children challenged the validity of the trust protector's amendments, and both sides eventually moved for summary judgment as to the validity of the amendments. Id. The trial court found that the original trust document was unambiguous, that only one trust (the Family Trust) was intended after the husband's death, and that the trust protector had no authority to change the terms of the original trust. Id. at 720, 723, 725-26. The trial court therefore entered partial summary judgment for the children on the issue of the validity of the trust protector's amendments. Id. at 723.

         On appeal, the only issue before our court was whether the trust protector's amendments were valid. Id. at 720 n.1. We reversed the trial court's order, holding that the original trust document was ambiguous as to whether the husband intended to create a single trust or separate trusts for the wife and children, that the trust protector was authorized to amend the trust to correct ambiguities, and that the trust protector's amendments were valid. Id. at 724-27.

         We found that "the single-trust interpretation reached by the trial court does not appear to be unambiguously supported by the trust document." Id. at 726. We reasoned that the provisions of the trust were conflicting and that "the overall structure of the trust contemplates something separate and apart from the Family Trust." Id. at 726. We further found that the original trust document was "patently ambiguous on the issue of whether a new trust is created, where the language in the trust instrument dictates that the Family Trust terminates on the death of the wife." Id. We then reviewed the uncontradicted evidence in the record as to the husband's intent:

The trust protector testified in a deposition that he met with the husband twice, first in person to discuss his estate planning desires, and second over the phone to discuss and execute the documents he had drafted. During the husband's life, the husband and wife's "lives revolved around horse racing and legal gambling," and, in the trust, the husband wanted "to provide for [the wife] in the way they had lived in the past. . . ." The plan was "to create a separate Trust for the benefit of his children" which "would be created only if the Family Trust described in Article 10 . . . was not exhausted during [the wife's] lifetime[.]" The purpose of Article 10, Section 7 and Article 11 was "to assure that the Family Trust was not in any way associated to a new Trust that might be created for his children." The trust protector also stated, "This challenge by the children is exactly ...

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