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Kunz v. Sylvain

Appellate Court of Connecticut

September 15, 2015

SHARON KUNZ
v.
DALE SYLVAIN, ET AL

Argued March 17, 2015

Page 1268

Action seeking, inter alia, modification of a trust document, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Tolland, where the matter was tried to the court, Cobb, J.; judgment for the defendants, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court.

SYLLABUS

The plaintiff brought this action seeking to invalidate a 2005 amended inter vivos trust of her deceased father, J, which had removed her as a beneficiary under the trust, and to reinstate a 1996 trust, under the terms of which she was a beneficiary. The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the defendant D, individually and as trustee of the 2005 trust, and the defendant K, both of whom are the plaintiff's brothers. On the plaintiff's appeal to this court, held :

1. The plaintiff could not prevail on her claim that the trial court improperly concluded that J had the requisite mental capacity to execute the 2005 trust amendments, which was based on her claim that the court, in analyzing J's mental capacity, erred by applying a testamentary standard rather than a contract standard: the minimum level of mental capacity required to make a will is less than that necessary to make a contract or a deed, or to carry on business transactions, and, thus, the ability to transact business is not the legal standard of testamentary capacity, and the trial court having determined that, even under the higher standard for capacity, J had the requisite mental capacity to understand his decisions and in particular, his decision to disinherit the plaintiff, the court, in effect, applied the standard advocated by the plaintiff on appeal; moreover, the trial court clearly recognized that different mental capacities may be required for different sorts of transactions, appreciated the nature of the transaction in question, and found that J had a mental capacity adequate to understand and to effectuate that transaction, and this court presumed that the trial court, in rendering its judgment, undertook the proper analysis of the law and the facts.

2. The trial court's factual finding that J satisfied the standard for mental capacity to understand the transactions that amended the trust was not clearly erroneous; that court did not ignore the medical testimony provided by the plaintiff's experts but, rather, implicitly chose not to credit fully their testimony as applied to the facts of the case, and to credit the testimony of the defendants' medical expert to the effect that J had good and bad days in the time frame of August, 2005, when he executed the trust amendments, there was additional evidence from J's attorney, D and a registered nurse to support the court's finding that J had the requisite mental capacity to amend his trust in August, 2005, and it was within the province of the trial court to determine the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be accorded their testimony.

3. The plaintiff could not prevail on her claim that the trial court erred in failing to shift the burden of persuasion to the defendants on her claim of undue influence, which was based on her claim that D and K, as J's attorney-in-fact and successor attorney-in-fact, respectively, and by means of their close, trusting and controlling relationship with J, owed a fiduciary duty to J such that the burden of showing the absence of undue influence shifted to them as fiduciaries: that court properly determined that the plaintiff failed to present credible evidence to support her claim that J's decision to remove her as a beneficiary resulted from the application of undue influence by the defendants, as the plaintiff failed to provide support for her claim that a fiduciary relationship was established merely by virtue of being a beneficiary of a trust or a disability of death trustee, the trial court's finding that neither D nor K exercised his power of attorney in relation to J's decision to amend the 1996 trust was not clearly erroneous, and the plaintiff cited no authority for the proposition that an unused power of attorney creates a more general fiduciary duty as to all affairs; moreover, the court correctly concluded that the execution of the trust amendments did not occur within either a formal or more generalized fiduciary relationship, and the existence of a relation of personal confidence between a parent and a child did not in itself raise a legal presumption of undue influence, nor did it shift the burden of proving undue influence to the opposing party.

Martin B. Burke, with whom were Lara Sandberg, certified legal intern, and, on the brief, Cheryl Povilonis, certified legal intern, for the appellant (plaintiff).

James H. Howard, for the appellees (defendants).

Beach, Sheldon and Bear, Js.

OPINION

Page 1269

[159 Conn.App. 732] BEACH, J.

In 2005, Joel Sylvain amended his previous estate plan so that his plaintiff daughter, Sharon Kunz, was essentially disinherited. Joel Sylvain has since passed away, and the plaintiff claims that he lacked sufficient capacity to effect the changes. The trial court disagreed.

The plaintiff now appeals from the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of the defendants, Dale Sylvain, individually and as trustee of a revocable living trust, and Kenneth Sylvain.[1] The plaintiff claims

Page 1270

that the court erred in (1) concluding that Joel Sylvain, the settlor of the trust, had the requisite mental capacity to execute the challenged amendments to the trust, and (2) failing to shift the burden of persuasion to the [159 Conn.App. 733] defendants on her claim of undue influence. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The plaintiff instituted an action seeking to invalidate the 2005 amended inter vivos trust of Joel Sylvain, which removed her as a beneficiary, and to reinstate a 1996 trust, under the terms of which she was a beneficiary. In her complaint, she alleged lack of capacity and undue influence. The trial court found the following facts.[2] " Joel Sylvain had three children; Sharon Kunz . . . and Dale [Sylvain] and Kenneth Sylvain . . . . The defendant Hilda [Sylvain] was Joel [Sylvain's] second wife whom he married in 1993. Hilda [Sylvain] had previously been married to one of Joel [Sylvain's] ten siblings and had been an aunt to [the plaintiff and the defendants], prior to marrying Joel [Sylvain].

" On November 15, 1996, Joel [Sylvain] executed 'The Joel L. Sylvain Living Trust' (the 1996 Trust), for estate planning purposes. When he executed the 1996 Trust, Joel [Sylvain] was represented by the law firm Nirenstein, Horowitz and Associates in Hartford, which specialized in estate planning. The 1996 Trust consisted of approximately forty pages, and contained twelve articles, each containing a number of subsections. It named Joel Sylvain as trustor and trustee. Joel [Sylvain's] three grown children . . . were identified in the 1996 Trust. Section 4 named Hilda [Sylvain] and Dale Sylvain as 'Disability Trustees' and 'Death Trustees' in the event that Joel [Sylvain] became disabled or died. The 1996 Trust made specific distributions upon Joel [Sylvain's] death including giving all of his personal and real property to Hilda [Sylvain]. Under the 1996 Trust, Joel [Sylvain's] remaining property would be distributed equally among Joel [Sylvain's] three children, or if any of his children predeceased him, to their children.

[159 Conn.App. 734] The 1996 Trust was signed by Joel Sylvain as trustor and trustee. Both signatures were acknowledged by a notary public. Upon execution of the 1996 Trust, Joel [Sylvain's] assets were then transferred to the trust, which Joel [Sylvain] administered until he was deemed disabled and placed in a nursing home in 2007. [The plaintiff does not claim] in this case that [the] 1996 Trust was invalid, or that Joel [Sylvain] lacked the requisite mental capacity to execute it.

" On August 22, 2005, Joel executed a restatement of the 1996 Trust, with certain amendments (the 2005 Trust). In executing the 2005 Trust, Joel [Sylvain] was represented by the same law firm that represented him in the execution of his 1996 Trust, and in particular, Attorney [Edward] Vinhateiro. Like the 1996 Trust, the 2005 Trust consisted of approximately forty pages and twelve articles, each with a number of subsections. The two documents contained essentially the same provisions except that the 2005 Trust contained two primary amendments: (1) to remove Hilda [Sylvain], who was 79, as one of the two ...


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