The Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code (MUTC) is still new enough that any higher court decision interpreting it feels like a special day for fiduciary litigators. Well, ’tis the season!
The Appeals Court recently issued a decision in a case entitled In the Matter of the Colecchia Family Trust, Mass. App. Ct., No. 20P224 (November 29, 2021). The case contains a few special presents for practitioners or pro se litigants that can help in litigating MUTC cases.
In this case, Michael Colecchia, one of six children of the settlors of the trust, filed a general equity petition against the trustees, his sisters. Unaware that his parents put their house into trust and under the impression that the children would inherit equal interests in the house, Michael performed maintenance and repairs to the house from the date the trust was created until both settlors died. After his parents both died, Michael was informed of the existence of the trust. Michael’s petition claimed, among other things, that the services he had provided to his parents entitled him to a larger share of the trust and that the trust was a product of undue influence.
The Probate and Family Court concluded that there had been no undue influence and that Michael was not entitled to recover for the value of the services he performed. The Appeals Court considered three issues of first impression, which it answered as follows:
1. Does the MUTC permit service of a general trust petition by publication alone?
Yes. The MUTC permits service of a general trust petition by publication alone. If the judge or either party does not wish for service by publication, the trial judge should strike that option from the form. The Appeals Court did not set forth a procedure for this, however, the party who does not wish for service by publication can likely make such a request by oral or written motion.
2. When does a person become a qualified beneficiary of a trust?
Michael claimed here that he should have known about the existence of the Trust prior to his parents’ death. The Appeals Court concluded otherwise, ruling that a person need not learn of the existence of a trust until that person becomes a qualified beneficiary, which occurs on the date that person’s entitlement under the trust is triggered. Until that point, there is no requirement that the person have knowledge of the existence of the trust.
3. Does the affidavit requirement of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code apply in a general trust petition action under the MUTC?
No. The MUTC nowhere contains a requirement that a petitioner file an affidavit with a general probate petition.
In conclusion, it is also important to note that though the Appeals Court decided this case, it explicitly cautioned that general trust petitions are not a “proper mechanism by which to bring claims for monetary damages.” The final takeaway here may be that no matter your family circumstances, some gifts should not be a surprise; nobody wants coal when their siblings received diamonds. Trusts, and all estate plans, are best discussed, as my colleague Tiffany recently explained.