February 24, 2020

February 24, 2020

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Rouner v. Hudson -- Cautionary Tale re Trust and Estate Plans from the Missouri Supreme Court

In 1996, one Dr. Conklin executed an agreement creating a living trust and a pour-over will re the remainder of his estate.  The 1996 agreement identifies Conklin's two children by his first wife as beneficiaries.  In 2000, Conklin remarried, gaining two stepchildren.  In 2002, prior to a roadtrip with his second wife to Phoenix, Conklin hand-wrote a letter, addressed it to one of his children, and left it in the glove-compartment of the vehicle he was driving.  The letter states in part that, if the children and stepchildren were reading it, "it means that Jo and I have met our demise either going to or coming back from Phoenix.  The trust has not been updated for several years so I will express my desire on how I wish everything to be handled."  The letter goes on to identify how life insurance proceeds, real property, vehicles, and other assets are to be distributed among his children and step-children.  Conklin did successfully return from Phoenix alive and the letter was later found among his records when he died in 2009.  The letter was not, however, found to be a valid amendment of the trust. 

Moral of the story: Letters you prepare/leave in your glove box in anticipation of your demise heading to/returning from Phoenix may not suffice to revise your trust and estate plan. 

Court Overview:

Two stepchildren appeal the circuit court’s judgment in favor of their stepfather’s natural children in a dispute over whether a letter amended terms of the stepfather’s trust leaving all his property to his children and excluding the stepchildren. In a unanimous decision written by Judge Paul C. Wilson, the Supreme Court of Missouri affirms the circuit court’s judgment. The stepchildren failed to prove that their stepfather intended the letter to serve as an amendment to his trust. Neither the language of the letter nor the extrinsic evidence provides any clear and convincing basis – directly or by any fair inference – for concluding that the stepfather understood and intended for the letter to serve as an amendment to the trust. The circuit court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney fees and costs to the children, nor did it err in holding the children did not violate the trust’s no-contest provision in defending the trust.

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About this Author

Laura A. Bentele, Litigation Attorney, Armstrong Teasdale, Law firm

Laura Bentele is an associate attorney in the Litigation group practicing in the areas of complex commercial litigation and white collar criminal defense. To achieve optimal outcomes, Laura anticipates clients’ strategic and practical business considerations. Committed to effective case management, she is versed in all phases of discovery, trial preparation and negotiation of settlements with opposing counsel. Laura strives to maintain open avenues of communication to ensure that clients receive representation that meets their business needs.