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Glassie v. Doucette

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 20, 2017

Alison E. Glassie et al.
Paul Doucette, in his capacity as Executor of the Estate of Donelson C. Glassie, Jr.

         Newport County Superior Court (NC 12-262) Associate Justice Bennett R. Gallo

          Melissa M. Horne, Esq. For Plaintiff:

          R. Daniel Prentiss, Esq. For Defendant:

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.



         This appeal came before the Supreme Court on February 10, 2017, and requires the Court to determine whether the law of contracts or the law of trusts governs the resolution of this dispute. An allegedly underfunded trust that was created by the decedent, Donelson C. Glassie, Jr. (Donelson), for the benefit of his daughter, the late Jacquelin Caffrey Glassie (Jacquelin), [1] in accordance with a property settlement agreement between her divorcing parents, Donelson and Jacquelin's mother, Marcia Sallum Glassie (Marcia), is the genesis of this dispute.

         The plaintiff, Alison E. Glassie (plaintiff or Alison), Executrix of the Estate of Jacquelin Caffrey Glassie, appeals from a grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant, Paul Doucette, in his capacity as Executor of the Estate of Donelson C. Glassie, Jr. (defendant) on plaintiff's breach of contract claim. The Superior Court justice applied the law of trusts and declared that plaintiff lacked standing to sue the estate because, except in limited circumstances, only a trustee may institute an action on behalf of the beneficiaries of a trust. Before this Court, plaintiff argues that the trust created for Jacquelin's benefit is not the basis of this suit and that her standing to sue arises from her status as a third-party beneficiary to the property settlement agreement entered into by her divorcing parents. For the reasons discussed herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         This case is but one chapter[2] in what is a complicated, multistate continuing saga over the decedent's estate, arising in the context of a legacy of wealth. On February 14, 1986, Donelson and Marcia were married; they had three children, Alison, Georgia, and the youngest, Jacquelin, the subject of this dispute. Prior to Jacquelin's birth, Donelson's mother, Sara Madison Eccles, created two trusts, with a principal of $100, 000 each, for the benefit of Jacquelin's older sisters, Alison and Georgia. Donelson and Marcia eventually ended their marriage and entered into a property settlement agreement on July 1, 1993. Article SEVENTEENTH provided as follows:

"Whereas there is presently in existence two Trusts for the benefit of the minor child, Alison and the minor child, Georgia. Said Trusts are in the principal amount of $100, 000. Therefore, the Husband agrees to create a similar trust within 45 days for the minor child, Jacquelin. He shall pay into said Trust the sum of $10, 000 each and every year until said Trust is equal to the amount of the Trusts for Alison and Georgia. Said Trust shall be used to pay for the college and higher education of the minor child, Jacquelin."

         On August 11, 1993, Donelson established the Jacquelin Caffrey Glassie Trust II (the Trust). Section 3.1 of the Trust states that the declared purpose of the Trust was "to provide benefits for the primary beneficiary through a trust providing benefits substantially similar to those provided for Alison Glassie and Georgia Glassie by trusts created by Trustor's mother, Sara Madison Eccles, on August 30, 1989 * * *." Section 2.7 of the Trust indicates that the Trust would terminate "upon the death of the primary beneficiary." In the event that Jacquelin, the primary beneficiary, failed to exercise a power of appointment, the Trust was to be distributed in equal shares to Jacquelin's living issue, or in the case of no living issue, in equal shares to Donelson's living issue, "with the Trustee of any trust created by Trustor's mother * * * for the benefit of such issue similar to this trust receiving the share for such issue * * *." Id. at 2.7(b). Notably missing from the Trust language is any provision that indicates that the Trust was created pursuant to the property settlement agreement, or that Donelson was required to contribute $10, 000 a year until the Trust was "equal to the amount of the Trusts for Alison and Georgia." The record discloses that Donelson conveyed property to the trustee of the Trust, First Security Bank of Utah, National Association, [3] in accordance with Schedule A, a document which has not been produced. According to an affidavit of the Executor, Donelson made two cash contributions of $10, 000, and all other contributions were transfers of equity securities.

         On February 3, 2011, Donelson died. According to the Executor, Donelson had contributed $123, 336.82 to the Trust at the time of his death, resulting in a market value of $175, 425.70. Jacquelin filed a claim against her father's estate, alleging that her father breached the property settlement agreement by failing to fund the Trust until it was equivalent to that of her sisters. After the Executor denied Jacquelin's claim, she filed a petition for a determination of disallowed claim in the Newport Probate Court. On June 15, 2012, the Probate Court, pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 33-11-16, [4] ruled that Jacquelin's claim should be decided by the Superior Court, and this action ensued. Jacquelin alleged breach of contract in that "[Donelson] failed to carry out [the] provisions of the property settlement agreement." She also averred that, had the Executor allowed her claim to fund the Trust in accordance with Donelson's obligations, the Trust would have had a value of approximately $1, 600, 000.

         On November 15, 2012, almost five months after the complaint was filed, Jacquelin unexpectedly passed away. Alison, the eldest Glassie sister, was appointed Executrix of Jacquelin's estate and was substituted as plaintiff in this action.[5] On April 29, 2013, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff lacked the requisite standing to sue because generally only the trustee has capacity to file suit on behalf of the beneficiaries of a trust and that plaintiff's claim was not cognizable since the Trust had terminated on Jacquelin's death. The plaintiff filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and raised a new argument, contending that she was not suing on behalf of the Trust, but as a third-party beneficiary to the property settlement agreement. On December 2, 2013, after hearing, summary judgment was granted in favor of defendant on the basis that the right to bring the claim rested with the Trustee. Immediately following this pronouncement, plaintiff requested that summary judgment be granted "without prejudice, " in order for plaintiff to substitute the Trustee as plaintiff. Counsel for defendant responded that the Trustee would have to make a claim if it deemed fit, and the Superior Court justice responded "[t]hat's true."[6] No ruling was made on plaintiff's request.

         Judgment for defendant was entered on December 10, 2013.[7] The plaintiff timely appealed on December 20, 2013.

         Standard of Review

         "This Court reviews de novo a trial justice's decision granting summary judgment." Sola v. Leighton, 45 A.3d 502, 506 (R.I. 2012) (quoting Lynch v. Spirit Rent-A-Car, Inc., 965 A.2d 417, 424 (R.I. 2009)). "Summary judgment is appropriate only when the 'pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as [a] matter of law.'" Id. (quoting Plunkett v. State, 869 A.2d 1185, 1187 (R.I. 2005)). "Only when a review of the admissible evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party reveals no genuine issues of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, will this Court uphold the trial justice's grant of summary judgment." Id. (quoting National Refrigeration, Inc. v. Standen Contracting Co., 942 A.2d 968, 971 (R.I. 2008)). "[S]ummary ...

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