Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
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Rice formed a trust for the benefit of his children in his home state, New York, and appointed a New York resident as the trustee. The trustee has “absolute discretion” to distribute the trust’s assets to the beneficiaries. In 1997, Rice’s daughter, Kaestner, moved to North Carolina. The trustee later divided Rice’s initial trust into three subtrusts. North Carolina assessed a tax of $1.3 million for tax years 2005-2008 on the Kaestner Trust under a law authorizing the state to tax any trust income that “is for the benefit of” a state resident. During that period, Kaestner had no right to and did not receive, any distributions. Nor did the Trust have a physical presence, make any direct investments, or hold any real property in North Carolina. The trustee paid the tax under protest and then sued, citing the Due Process Clause. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed state court decisions in favor of the trustee. The presence of in-state beneficiaries alone does not empower a state to tax trust income that has not been distributed to the beneficiaries where the beneficiaries have no right to demand that income and are uncertain to receive it. The Due Process Clause limits the states to imposing only taxes that “bea[r] fiscal relation to protection, opportunities and benefits given by the state.” When a state seeks to base its tax on the in-state residence of a trust beneficiary, due process demands a pragmatic inquiry into what the beneficiary controls or possesses and how that interest relates to the object of the tax. The residence of the beneficiaries in North Carolina alone does not supply the minimum connection necessary to sustain the tax. View "North Carolina Department of Revenue v. Kimberley Rice Kaestner 1992 Family Trust" on Justia Law

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In 2007, beneficiaries of the Edison 401(k) Savings Plan sued Plan fiduciaries, to recover damages for alleged losses suffered because of alleged breaches of fiduciary duties. The beneficiaries claimed violations with respect to mutual funds added to the Plan in 1999 and mutual funds added to the Plan in 2002, by acted imprudently in offering higher priced retail-class mutual funds as Plan investments when materially identical lower priced institutional-class mutual funds were available. Because ERISA requires a breach of fiduciary duty complaint to be filed no more than six years after “the date of the last action which constitutes a part of the breach or violation” or “in the case of an omission the latest date on which the fiduciary could have cured the breach or violation,” 29 U.S.C. 1113, the district court found the complaint as to the 1999 funds untimely. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, concluding that beneficiaries had not established a change in circumstances that might trigger an obligation to conduct a full due diligence review of the funds within the six-year period. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. ERISA’s fiduciary duty is derived from the common law of trusts, which provides that a trustee has a continuing duty, separate from the duty to exercise prudence in initially selecting investments, to monitor, and remove imprudent trust investments. So long as a claim alleging breach of the continuing duty of prudence occurred within six years of suit, the claim is timely. The Court remanded for the Ninth Circuit to consider claims that the fiduciaries breached their duties within the relevant 6-year statutory period, considering analogous trust law. View "Tibble v. Edison Int’l" on Justia Law

Posted in: ERISA, Trusts & Estates
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Petitioner’s father established a trust for the benefit of petitioner and his siblings, and made petitioner the nonprofessional trustee. The trust’s sole asset was the father’s life insurance policy. Petitioner borrowed funds from the trust three times; all borrowed funds were repaid with interest. His siblings obtained a state court judgment for breach of fiduciary duty, though the court found no apparent malicious motive. The court imposed constructive trusts on petitioner’s interests, including his interest in the original trust, to secure payment of the judgment, with respondent serving as trustee for all of the trusts. Petitioner filed for bankruptcy. Respondent opposed discharge of debts to the trust. The Bankruptcy Court held that petitioner’s debts were not dischargeable under 11 U. S. C. 523(a)(4), which provides that an individual cannot obtain a bankruptcy discharge from a debt “for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement, or larceny.” The district court and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated. The term “defalcation” in the Bankruptcy Code includes a culpable state of mind requirement involving knowledge of, or gross recklessness in respect to, the improper nature of the fiduciary behavior. The Court previously interpreted the term “fraud” in the exceptions to mean “positive fraud, or fraud in fact, involving moral turpitude or intentional wrong.” The term “defalcation” should be treated similarly. Where the conduct does not involve bad faith, moral turpitude, or other immoral conduct, “defalcation” requires an intentional wrong. An intentional wrong includes not only conduct that the fiduciary knows is improper but also reckless conduct of the kind that the criminal law often treats as the equivalent. Where actual knowledge of wrongdoing is lacking, conduct is considered as equivalent if, as set forth in the Model Penal Code, the fiduciary “consciously disregards,” or is willfully blind to, “a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that his conduct will violate a fiduciary duty. View "Bullock v. BankChampaign, N. A." on Justia Law

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This case stemmed from the long-running dispute between Vickie Lynn Marshall and E. Pierce Marshall over the fortune of J. Howard Marshall II, a man believed to have been one of the richest people in Texas. Vickie married J. Howard, Pierce's father, approximately a year before his death. Shortly before J. Howard died, Vickie filed a suit against Pierce in Texas state court asserting that J. Howard meant to provide for Vickie through a trust, and Pierce tortiously interfered with that gift. The litigation worked its way through state and federal courts in Louisiana, Texas, and California, and two of those courts, a Texas state probate court and the Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California, reached contrary decisions on its merits. The Court of Appeals subsequently held that the Texas state decision controlled after concluding that the Bankruptcy Court lacked the authority to enter final judgment on a counterclaim that Vickie brought against Pierce in her bankruptcy proceeding. At issue was whether the Bankruptcy Court Judge, who did not enjoy tenure and salary protections pursuant to Article III of the Constitution, had the statutory authority under 28 U.S.C. 157(b) to issue a final judgment on Vickie's counterclaims and, if so, whether conferring that authority on the Bankruptcy Court was constitutional. The Court held that the Bankruptcy Court had the statutory authority to enter judgment on Vickie's counterclaim as a core proceeding under section 157(b)(2)(C). The Court held, however, that the Bankruptcy Court lacked the constitutional authority under Article III to enter final judgment on a state law counterclaim that was not resolved in the process of ruling on a creditor's proof claim. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals was affirmed. View "Stern v. Marshall" on Justia Law

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The Jicarilla Apache Nation's ("Tribe") reservation contained natural resources that were developed pursuant to statutes administered by the Interior Department and proceeds from these resources were held by the United States in trust for the Tribe. The Tribe filed a breach-of-trust action in the Court of Federal Claims ("CFC") seeking monetary damages for the Government's alleged mismanagement of the Tribe's trust funds in violation of 25 U.S.C. 161-162a and other laws. During discovery, the Tribe moved to compel production of certain documents and the Government agreed to the release of some documents but asserted that others were protected by, inter alia, the attorney-client privilege. At issue was whether the fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege applied to the general trust relationship between the United States and Indian tribes. The Court held that the fiduciary exception did not apply where the trust obligations of the United States to the Indian tribes were established and governed by statute rather than the common law and, in fulfilling its statutory duties, the Government acted not as a private trustee but pursuant to its sovereign interest in the execution of federal law. The reasons for the fiduciary exception, that the trustee had no independent interest in trust administration, and that the trustee was subject to a general common-law duty of disclosure, did not apply in this context. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. View "United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation" on Justia Law