Allowing in parol evidence as to a trust-settlor's intent: Construing trust terms versus reforming them

Charles E. Rounds, Jr.

In the Missouri case of Mense v. Rennick, 491 S.W.3d 661 (Mo. App. 2016), the testimony of the settlor-beneficiary of an irrevocable trust as to what she had intended was not allowed in, the court having determined that the trust provision in question was unambiguous. She had asserted that it was ambiguous. “Absent any ambiguity in the terms of the trust,” opined the court, “the intent of the grantor must be determined from the four corners of the instrument without resort to parol evidence as to that intent.” But Missouri’s version of §415 of the Uniform Trust Code provides as follows: “The court may reform the terms of a trust, even if unambiguous, to conform the terms to the settlor’s intention if it is proved by clear and convincing evidence that both the settlor’s intent and the terms of the trust were affected by a mistake of fact or law, whether in expression or inducement.” See Missouri Revised Statutes §456.4-415.1. What if the settlor had sought in the alternative to have the provision judicially reformed to her liking, rather seeking only that it be interpreted to her liking? Reformation of trust terms is taken up generally in §8.15.22 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s Handbook [pages 1205-1212 of the 2017 Edition], which section is reproduced in its entirety below.

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Charles E. Rounds, Jr.

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