Probate, trust, guardianship and inheritance litigation
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Massachusetts Supreme Court: Claims For Intentional Interference With an Expectancy and Unjust Enrichment Not a Trust Contest Subject To One-Year Statute Of Limitation

In Sacks v. Dissinger, a December 29, 2021 opinion from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the Court reversed the lower court’s granting of Defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims for undue influence in a trust and estate contest, holding that the claims for intentional interference and unjust enrichment were not time barred.

The Facts of Sacks v. Dissinger

The following facts were taken from the complaint and supplemented by probate records.  Aaron Sacks established the Aaron H. Sacks Revocable Trust in August 2011.  The Trust originally provided that after Aaron and his wife Sheila died, each of their five children would receive one-fifth of the trust’s assets.  If any of their children predeceased Aaron and Sheila, that child’s share would go to that child’s heirs.

In June 2012, their son Jeffrey died, survived by his children Matthew and Rebecca.  Jeffrey made the decision to stop further treatment for a brain tumor, and was supported in this decision by Matthew and his sisters Donna and Joan.  Sheila by then was suffering from the effects of a stroke and the onset of dementia. Distraught over her son’s end-of-life decision, she blamed grandson Matthew and daughters Donna and Joan for supporting it.  Sheila considered them complicit in Jeffrey’s “murder.”  Nancy, another of Aaron and Sheila’s children, encouraged this belief in their mother.

Within months of Jeffrey’s death, Aaron was persuaded by Sheila and Nancy to remove Jeffrey’s heirs as beneficiaries of the trust.  Aaron executed an amendment to the trust in July 2012, providing that after Aaron’s and Sheila’s deaths, the trust property would be divided equally among only their four daughters.

Aaron died in 2017, and Sheila died in 2019.  Plaintiffs claimed they learned of their exclusion from the Trust only upon Sheila’s death in July 2019.  In November 2019 they filed a complaint for rescission of the 2012 amendment; for intentional interference with an expectancy against Sheila’s estate and against Nancy, and a claim against their aunts for unjust enrichment. In each of these claims, the plaintiffs alleged that Nancy and Sheila had exerted undue influence upon Aaron.

Defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims, arguing that the claims were time barred under G.L.c. 203E § 604, which requires that actions “contest[ing] the validity of a trust” be brought within one year of the trust settlor’s death. The Superior Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that their claims for intentional interference and unjust enrichment did not challenge the validity of the trust, and thus were not time barred by § 604.

What Is the Deadline To Bring a Trust Contest In Massachusetts?

One year.  Section 604, adopted as part of the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code states:

A person may commence a judicial proceeding to contest the validity of a trust that was revocable at the settlor’s death within . . . [one] year after the settlor’s death.

Here, Aaron undoubtedly is the settlor of the trust, and the plaintiffs filed their complaint over two years after Aaron’s death; thus, to the extent the plaintiffs are seeking to “contest the validity” of the trust, their claims are time barred.  The plaintiffs argued, however, that their claims of intentional interference and unjust enrichment are not trust contests but rather distinct causes of action.

The plain language of §604 suggests that the statute applies to proceedings to litigate, call into question, or challenge the validity of a trust instrument (or any part thereof).  Black’s Law Dictionary 398 (11th ed. 2019).  See Uniform Trust Code § 604 comment (2003) (“A ‘contest’ is an action to invalidate all or part of the terms of the trust or of property transfers to the trustee”).

What Does It Mean To Litigate, Call Into Question, Or Challenge the Validity Of a Trust?  Effect on the Trust v. Effect on a Person

Proceedings to litigate, call into question, or challenge the validity of a trust clearly captures claims –whatever those claims may be titled–that seek relief against the trust (e.g., rescission or reformation).  Claims that do not seek relief against the trust, but instead have their ultimate effect on a person, are not “trust contests.”  The Massachusetts Supreme Court looked to the treatment of will contests to inform their analysis, stating:

In the context of wills, we have recognized the distinction between contests, which seek to determine the validity of a legal instrument, and other causes of action, which do not.  We have reasoned that “a will contest is in the nature of a property right” and is not a “vindication of personal rights.”  Sheldonev. Marino, 398 Mass. 817, 819 (1986).  The determination of a will’s validity “establishes the will against all the world”; it does not ultimately speak to a specific relationship among persons.  Finerv. Steuer, 255 Mass. 611, 616 (1926).

We understand a trust contest, then, as an action where the underlying facts are assessed for their effect on all or part of a trust (e.g., invalidity), while a non contest is an action where the underlying facts are assessed for their effect on a person (e.g., harm).  The ultimate object of a contest is a determination of a trust’s validity, not the personal liability or even culpability of the settlors, beneficiaries, or trustees.  Cf. Harvey v. Fiduciary Trust Co., 299 Mass. 457, 464 (1938) (treating matter about trustee’s proper distribution of trust property as matter in rem or quasi in rem).

Intentional Interference With an Expectancy Not a Trust Contest

The Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that plaintiffs’ intentional interference claim is not a trust contest, because the claim for intentional interference does not challenge the nature or validity of the trust, but rather seeks a determination of the harm caused by Sheila and Nancy, and is predicated on the amendments’ effectiveness.  The Massachusetts Supreme Court stated:

[W]e have long recognized a cause of action for tortious interference with the expectancy of receiving a gift[,including an inheritance,] in certain limited conditions.”  Labontev. Giordano, 426 Mass.319, 320 (1997).  The claim derives from the harm one person causes another:  to prevail, a plaintiff must show that a defendant intentionally interfered through unlawful means with the plaintiff’s legally protected interest by acting on the would-be donor continuously “until the time the expectancy would have been realized.”  Id. at 321.  See Restatement (Third) of Torts:  Liability for Economic Harm§ 19 (2020) (“A defendant is subject to liability for interference with an inheritance or gift if:[a]the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of receiving an inheritance or gift; [b]the defendant committed an intentional and independent legal wrong; [c]the defendant’s purpose was to interfere with the plaintiff’s expectancy; [d]the defendant’s conduct caused the expectancy to fail; and [e]the plaintiff suffered economic loss as a result”).  This is an in personam action, not an in rem or quasi in rem action.

In addition, the underlying charge of undue influence did not create a trust contest, but could properly serve as a basis for the claim of tortious interference with an expectancy.

The Court also reasoned that the necessity of exhausting probate remedies for an intentional interference claim does not apply in the trust contest, distinguishing Brignati v. Medenwald which applies in the probate contest.

What Is the Deadline To Bring an Intentional Interference With an Expectancy Claim In Massachusetts?

Three years.  The Massachusetts Supreme Court stated:

Because an intentional interference with an expectancy claim inquires into one person’s (harmful) effect on another–not one person’s effect on the trust’s validity –and because undue influence can support such a tort claim distinct from a contest in these circumstances, we conclude that the intentional interference claim here is not subject to § 604’s one-year deadline. Instead, it is subject to the three-year statute of limitations prescribed by G. L. c. 260, § 2A.

Claim For Unjust Enrichment Not a Trust Contest Under Massachusetts Statute Section 604

A claim for unjust enrichment, like an intentional interference with an expectancy claim, derives from tortious conduct perpetrated by one person against another, and, for the same reasons that apply to the intentional interference claim, is not a trust contest under § 604 of the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court held that Plaintiffs’ claims were substantively different from the trust contests governed by section 604 and were therefore not time barred claims.

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