Illinois Supreme Court Declines to Decide the Question Presented in Boyar

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The Illinois Supreme Court granted leave to appeal in In re Estate of Boyar to decide whether the doctrine of election applies to trusts, and, if it does, to delineate any exceptions to the doctrine. But when the Court's opinion was filed on Thursday morning, Boyar turned out to be something of a letdown: in a 6-1 opinion by Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier, the Court declined to decide either issue. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court rulings in Boyar is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

The decedent set up a trust to distribute his property after his death. Although the trust was amended several times, until 2010, the beneficiaries retained the right to remove the trustee. But then, in the sixth and final amendment, the power to fire the trustee was withdrawn and a new trustee - the defendant in Boyar -- was appointed.

Following the decedent's death, petitioner - one of the decedent's children - filed a challenge to the sixth amendment, arguing lack of capacity. A few weeks later, the trustee was granted a citation to recover assets belonging to the trust - at least some of which the plaintiff acknowledged that he had received. On the trustee's motion, the Circuit Court dismissed, citing the doctrine of election, and the Appellate Court affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. The problem was that the answer to the questions presented didn't matter:

Properly understood, the doctrine of election is triggered in the context of wills only when there are two different benefits to which a person is entitled, the testator did not intend the beneficiary to take both benefits, and allowing the beneficiary to claim both would be inequitable to others having claims upon the same property or fund.

Merely accepting property under the instrument you were challenging had never triggered the doctrine of election, the majority held. Since there weren't two alternative bequests involved, the doctrine of election couldn't apply, and there was no basis for blocking the petitioner's challenge. Interestingly, the problems with the record - what appellate judges call a case not being "a good vehicle" for deciding an issue -- had not been noticed at the Circuit Court, the Appellate Court, or even in oral argument before the Supreme Court.

Justice Anne M. Burke dissented, objecting to the Court's refusal to decide the questions presented. "[M]y concern," Justice Burke wrote, is that "this court, on occasion, loses sight of its role in the judicial system and, in issuing opinions that avoid addressing the legal question at issue, functions more like an appellate court." Declining to decide the issue presented, and "trying to limit our decision to the narrowest factual grounds, is both illogical and undermines the role this court plays in the judicial system," Justice Burke wrote.