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Hoyt v. Robertson

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Second Division

October 29, 2019

ANTHONY HOYT, Appellant,
v.
DAVID ROBERTSON, ET AL., Respondents.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Warren County Honorable David B. Tobben

          KURT S. ODENWALD, JUDGE

         Introduction

         Anthony Hoyt ("Husband") appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of David and Virginia Robertson ("Parents") on two claims in Husband's petition seeking to declare void an amendment to the Debra R. Hoyt Trust (the "Trust"). Before her death, Debra R. Hoyt ("Wife") petitioned to dissolve her marriage to Husband. Wife also amended the Trust by removing Husband as a successor trustee and income beneficiary and appointing Parents as co-trustees (the "Trust Amendment"). Wife's undivided one-half interest in approximately 1000 acres of farmland ("the Farm") that she inherited during the marriage was the sole res of the Trust. Husband appeals the entry of summary judgment, which found the Trust Amendment valid as a matter of law.

         Because Husband had no ownership interest in the Farm when it was conveyed to the Trust, was not a cosettlor of the Trust, and was not inequitably deprived of the means to protect his interests when co-granting the Farm to the Trust, we deny Husband's first three points on appeal. Further, because the summary-judgment record raises no genuine issue of material fact that Wife lacked capacity or was unduly influenced by Parents at the time she executed the Trust Amendment, we deny Husband's final point on appeal. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Husband and Wife married in 1983 and had one child ("Son"). Husband and Wife jointly owned several tracts of farmland. On May 4, 2005, Wife inherited an undivided one-half interest as tenant in common in the Farm from Wife's grandparents. Wife's mother is the tenant in common for the remaining one-half interest in the Farm.

         On November 23, 2005, Husband and Wife directed an attorney to prepare two deeds and two revocable trusts: the Trust and a joint trust (the "Joint Trust"). Husband and Wife conveyed their jointly owned farmland into the Joint Trust. Wife's inherited one-half interest in the Farm was placed in the Trust. Attached to the Trust under Schedule 1 was a warranty deed (the "Deed") executed by Wife and Husband as cograntors conveying the Farm to the Trust. The Trust named Wife as sole grantor and sole trustee. The fourteenth provision of the Trust expressly reserved to Wife the exclusive right to amend or revoke the Trust in whole or in part as well as to withdraw property from the Trust (the "Amendment Provision"). The Trust provided that in the event Wife predeceased Husband, "the Trustee shall distribute to Grantor's spouse [Husband] not less often than quarter-annually all of the net income of the Trust." After Husband's death, the income benefits passed to Wife's children (e.g., Son). The Trust provided that, in the event Wife predeceased Husband, Husband would become the successor trustee. In the event Husband also died, Parents would become successor trustees, followed by other members of Wife's family.

         In his affidavit filed with the summary-judgment record, Husband claimed a property right in the Farm which funded the Trust. Specifically, Husband stated that the property funding the Trust was "the 50% stake we held in the three farms she had inherited from her grandparents into the trust. I was advised that my signature was needed[.]" Husband further stated that he and Wife discussed and orally agreed that he would sign the Deed conveying the Farm to the Trust because, under the Trust, Husband and Wife would be lifetime income beneficiaries until their deaths. Husband stated that he did not read the Trust or know of its provisions, including the Amendment Provision. Husband explained: "I had made a deal, and was assured that in exchange for my signature on the deed conveying the property to [Wife], as trustee, the [T]rust would provide as we had agreed."

         Husband and Wife's relationship deteriorated. In 2014, Wife petitioned to dissolve her marriage to Husband on the basis that the marriage was irretrievably broken. In his answer and counter-petition for dissolution, Husband admitted the marriage was irretrievably broken.

         Wife suffered from lupus and, later, lymphoma. The summary-judgment record contains no medical records or reports nor affidavits of incapacity. Husband submitted affidavits from himself and Son providing details about Wife's health struggles near the end of her life, including how Son drove Wife when she could not drive and that Wife experienced bouts of delirium.

         On June 29, 2016, Wife amended the Trust to revoke the provisions benefiting Husband. Wife's attorney and the notary public who witnessed the execution of the Trust Amendment attested that Wife had testamentary capacity and was not unduly influenced when she executed the Trust Amendment. The Trust Amendment removed Husband as successor trustee and named Parents as successor trustees. The Trust Amendment also removed Husband as an income beneficiary and substituted Son as the income beneficiary.

         Wife died on August 28, 2016, while her petition to divorce Husband remained pending. In addition to the Trust and Joint Trust, Wife had executed a will (the "Will"). The Will, like the Trust, provided for Husband and Son and gave her remaining estate to the Joint Trust. Wife did not amend the Will before her death.

         On March 3, 2017, Husband filed a petition seeking to invalidate the Trust Amendment removing him as sole trustee and income beneficiary and appointing Parents as co-trustees (the "Petition"). Husband brought five counts: declaratory relief to void the Trust Amendment based on being a co-settlor of the Trust and Wife being unable to amend the Trust without his assent (Count I); breach of trust (or fiduciary duty) by Parents acting as trustees (Count II); an accounting (Count III); alternative relief to set aside the conveyance of the Farm into the Trust for (a) lack of consideration, (b) fraud on marital rights, or (c) improperly delivered deed (Count IV); and lack of capacity and duress (Count V). Parents counterclaimed for a court-ordered partition and sale of the Trust property and for attorneys' fees incurred in upholding the validity of the Trust Amendment.[1]

         Parents moved for partial summary judgment on Counts I, IV (declaratory relief) and V (capacity and duress). Husband thereafter sought leave to amend his Petition. The trial court held a hearing on Parents' summary-judgment motion regarding the validity of the Trust Amendment. After the hearing, Husband cross-moved for partial summary judgment on Counts I (declaratory relief) and II (accounting), raising the theory of equitable estoppel under Count I. In their response, Parents noted that Husband had not pleaded equitable estoppel in his Petition.[2]

         After reviewing the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court entered judgment in favor of Parents on Counts I, IV, and V on January 11, 2018 (the "2018 Judgment"). The trial court denied Husband leave to amend Counts I, IV, and V, only granting him leave to amend Counts II and III.

         Husband moved for the trial court to reconsider and set aside the 2018 Judgment and to certify the interlocutory 2018 Judgment as final under Rule 74.01(b).[3] The trial court denied Husband's motion to reconsider and set aside the 2018 Judgment twice (due to a change of judge), granted Husband's request to certify the 2018 Judgment as final for purposes of appeal, and denied as moot Husband's motion for partial summary judgment on Count I.

         Husband then appealed the 2018 Judgment with respect to Count I (declaratory relief) and V (capacity and duress). Husband did not appeal the trial court's grant of summary judgment on Count IV (marital fraud, lack of consideration, or improperly delivered deed). This Court issued an order to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed for lack of a final judgment. The trial court then entered an order re-certifying the 2018 Judgment for appeal.[4]This Court took the jurisdictional issue with the case.

         Points on Appeal

         Husband raises four points on appeal. In each point, Husband argues the trial court misapplied the law and therefore erred in granting summary judgment to Parents on Counts I and V of his Petition. In Point One, Husband alleges the trial court erred in determining that Husband had no marital interest in the Farm when it was conveyed to the Trust because he had inheritance rights in the Farm under Chapter 474.[5] Points Two and Three flow directly from Point One. In Point Two, Husband asserts that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Parents on Count I because he had an interest in the Farm used to fund the Trust. More specifically, Husband maintains that Wife was equitably estopped from amending the Trust by removing the provisions benefiting Husband in that Husband relied on the oral promise of those benefits as an inducement to sign the Deed conveying the Farm to the Trust. In Point Three, Husband claims that his interest in the Farm used to fund the Trust made him a co-settlor of the Trust, and therefore, under Section 456.6-602.2, Wife could not amend the Trust without his consent. Lastly, Husband argues in Point Four that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Parents on Count V because the record contained genuine issues of material fact regarding capacity, duress, and undue influence when Wife executed the Trust Amendment.

         Jurisdiction

         This Court has a duty to inquire sua sponte into the propriety of certifying a judgment as final under Rule 74.01(b). Gibson v. Brewer, 952 S.W.2d 239, 244 (Mo. banc 1997); ARC Indus., Inc. v. Siegel-Robert, Inc., 157 S.W.3d 344, 346 (Mo. App. E.D. 2005). On its own motion, this Court requested the parties brief the issue. Both parties submit that the trial court properly certified the 2018 Judgment granting partial summary judgment to Parents' on Counts I, IV, and V as final. The trial court found that there was no just reason to delay and that it was necessary to determine the parties' legal interests in the Trust before proceeding with the remaining issues.

         In assessing whether Rule 74.01(b) certification is proper, we consider the following four factors: (1) whether the action remains pending in the trial court as to all parties; (2) whether similar relief can be awarded in each separate count; (3) whether determination of the claims pending in the trial court would moot the claim being appealed; and (4) whether the factual underpinnings of all the claims are intertwined. ARC Indus., Inc., 157 S.W.3d at 346 (internal citations omitted). If certification under Rule 74.01(b) is improper under these factors, then there is no final judgment and we must dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Id.

         Here, we agree that certification is proper under the first factor because the validity of the Trust Amendment removing Husband as successor trustee and income beneficiary determines Husband's standing for his remaining claims. The 2018 Judgment effectively leaves no claims pending for Husband because, as neither a trustee nor beneficiary, Husband lacks standing to pursue his claims for an accounting (Count II) and breach of trust (Count III). See In re Stephen M. Gunther Revocable Living Tr., 350 S.W.3d 44, 45 (Mo. App. E.D. 2011) (internal citation omitted) (denying a motion to dismiss an appeal for lack of a final judgment where "[b]y concluding that the trustee had no fiduciary relationship with the beneficiaries before the settlor's death, the judgment thus effectively disposed of all issues and all parties in the case, leaving nothing for future determination"); John R. Boyce Family Tr. v. Snyder, 128 S.W.3d 630, 639- 40 (Mo. App. E.D. 2004) (internal citations omitted) (discussing standing for successor trustees and beneficiaries to bring equitable and money-damages claims for an accounting and breach of trust). The trial court further found Husband's motion for partial summary judgment on Counts I and II mooted by the 2018 Judgment, and Husband's Count III for breach of trust may likewise be considered mooted under the doctrine of implicit finality. See First Cmty. Credit Union, 395 S.W.3d 571, 577 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) (internal quotation omitted) ("If a judgment, by implication, necessarily carries with it a finding upon other counts, the judgment will be sustained as final even though the count is not specifically mentioned."). The 2018 Judgment also leaves Husband with no legal interest in the Farm with respect to Parents' counterclaim for partition. See In re Stephen, 350 S.W.3d at 45; Podlesak v. Wesley, 849 S.W.2d 728, 730 (Mo. App. S.D. 1993) (allowing appeal from summary judgment despite a pending counterclaim where determining the defendant's interest in the disputed property would resolve the counterclaim, and the trial court observed in a docket entry that the counterclaim was rendered moot by the summary judgment).

         The second factor also favors finality, as similar relief cannot otherwise be granted. See ARC Indus., Inc., 157 S.W.3d at 346. The 2018 Judgment adjudicated all of Husband's legal theories on his relationship to the Trust and the Farm in a single "judicial unit" distinct from the other claims which are "not [merely] differing legal theories or issues presented for recovery on the same claim." First Cmty. Credit Union, 395 S.W.3d at 576-77 (citing Gibson, 952 S.W.2d at 244). The third factor also supports finality because the remaining claims would not moot the claim being appealed, in that the claims for breach of trust, an accounting, and partition would not resolve Husband's legal interests in the Trust. See ARC Indus., Inc., 157 S.W.3d at 346. Fourth and finally, the factual underpinnings of the claims on appeal are sufficiently distinct from the remaining claims. See id. The facts relevant to the 2018 Judgment concern the funding of the Trust and the Trust Amendment. Facts regarding Parents' conduct serving as trustees for breach of trust are distinct from whether Husband is the rightful successor trustee. Likewise, facts concerning the division of land owned by the Trust as a tenant in common for the partition claim are separate from facts about the underlying validity of the Trust Amendment.

         Accordingly, the four-factored test favors certification under 74.01(b). See id. Because we find the trial court properly certified the finality of the 2018 Judgment, we have jurisdiction to hear the appeal. See id.

         Standard of Review

         We review a trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo. In re Stephen, 350 S.W.3d at 45 (citing ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-Am. Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993)). To be entitled to summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate a right to judgment as a matter of law based on facts about which there is no genuine dispute. Id. at 377; Channawood Holdings, LLC v. 1209 Washington, LLC, 333 S.W.3d 480, 485 (Mo. App. E.D. 2010). "When considering an appeal from summary judgment, we review the record in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was entered." ITT Commercial Fin. Corp., 854 S.W.2d at 376. We review the uncontroverted facts without weighing credibility, and "[f]acts set ...


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