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In re Appeal of Trustees of Marjorie T. Palmer Trust

Supreme Court of Vermont

December 21, 2018

In re Appeal of the Trustees of the Marjorie T. Palmer Trust Lorelei Kjelleren and Loren T. Palmer, Appellants

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Civil Division Robert A. Mello, J.

          Gary W. Lange of Lange Law Offices, Vergennes, for Appellants.

          Michael D. Johnson of Johnson & Finnigan, LLP, and Sheldon M. Katz, South Burlington, for Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          SKOGLUND, J.

         ¶ 1. This appeal stems from a probate order approving a special master's proposed division of real property owned by a trust. The trustees of the Marjorie T. Palmer Trust appealed the probate order to the civil division, which granted summary judgment in favor of appellee David C. Palmer, a beneficiary of the trust. On appeal to this Court, the trustees claim the civil division erred in denying their motion for appellee to undergo genetic testing, improperly limited the scope of their appeal from the probate division to three of the seven issues presented in their statement of questions, and erred in granting appellee's nonconforming motion for summary judgment on those three issues. We affirm the majority of the civil division's conclusions but reverse in part for it to consider one of the issues raised in the trustees' statement of questions that it declined to address.

         I. Facts

         ¶ 2. Marjorie T. and Loren F. Palmer executed a trust agreement in July 1992. Loren died sometime before August 2000; the record is unclear as to the precise date of his death. Marjorie died in October 2001, at which point the trust became irrevocable. The trust agreement appointed Marjorie's three children, Loren T. Palmer, Lorelei Kjelleren, and David F. Palmer, as co-trustees. David F. Palmer died in February 2011, leaving Loren T. Palmer and Lorelei Kjelleren to serve as the trustees.

         ¶ 3. This litigation began in November 2012, when David F. Palmer's son and sole heir, David C. Palmer, filed a petition in probate division to open a trust estate as well as a motion to remove and replace the trustees.[1] He alleged the trustees had mismanaged trust property and refused to provide him with a current copy of the trust agreement.

         ¶ 4. The trust owns approximately 143 acres of contiguous property in the towns of Charlotte, Shelburne, and Hinesburg, Vermont. Approximately 101 acres are in Charlotte, 10 acres are in Shelburne, and 32 acres are in Hinesburg. Much of the property has historically been used for maple sugaring and the parties apparently agree that Marjorie Palmer wanted to preserve a large portion of the land for that use. For several years, the trustees have leased portions of the property to David Palmer and to the son of trustee Loren Palmer for their separate sugaring operations.

         ¶ 5. Following her husband's death, Marjorie Palmer amended the trust agreement twice, in August 2000 and February 2001. The second amended trust agreement provides as follows:

The Trustees shall distribute to each of the Settlor's grandchildren who, at the time of the Settlor's death, have not been given a building lot in Hinesburg, Vermont by the Settlor, the Settlor's husband, Loren [F.] Palmer, or the Trustees, at the election of each such grandchild, either the sum of Thirty Thousand Dollars ($30, 000) or one (1) building lot as hereinafter defined. . . . Any grandchild who elects to receive a building lot pursuant to this provision shall make such election in writing to the Trustees to receive one (1) building lot to be selected by the Trustees. The Trustees shall give due consideration to any specific requests made by a grandchild with respect to the size and location of such building lot, but shall not be bound by such requests and may make such selection based upon such factors as the Trustees, in their sole discretion, deem relevant. Such election shall be made within one year of the Settlor's death. Failure by a grandchild to make such an election within such time period shall be conclusively deemed an election to receive Thirty Thousand Dollars ($30, 000) in lieu of a building lot. For the purpose of this Trust Agreement, a "building lot" shall mean a five to ten acre parcel of land located in Hinesburg, Shelburne, or Charlotte, Vermont with a building site to be used by such grandchild for a personal residence, such building lot to be located on land held in the Trust Fund by the Trustees.

         A separate provision stated that the trustees "may require, as a condition of such gift that each such grandchild agree in writing to construct a dwelling house on such parcel which will be used as his or her principal residence." The trust provided that after distribution of the building lots and payments, the remaining trust property would be divided into equal shares and distributed to the beneficiaries. Under the current circumstances, Loren T. Palmer, Lorelei Kjelleren, and David Palmer (as the surviving son of David F. Palmer) are each to receive one share.

         ¶ 6. At the time Marjorie Palmer executed the second amended trust agreement, three of her seven grandchildren had already received building lots. A fourth grandchild subsequently selected a building lot in Hinesburg and proceeded to build his principal residence, and a fifth took a payment in lieu of a building lot. The two remaining grandchildren, David Palmer and Mark Palmer, notified the trustees within a year of Marjorie's death in 2001 that they wanted a building lot. However, no action was taken on their requests.

         ¶ 7. In 2012, David Palmer identified a specific parcel in Shelburne that he wanted for his building lot. The trustees rejected his proposed lot because it was a portion of the property that the trustees intended to be the subject of a sale of a conservation easement to the Vermont Land Trust (VLT). The trustees offered him a building lot in Hinesburg instead.

         ¶ 8. In April 2014, the trustees entered into a purchase and sale agreement with the VLT for the development rights to the 111 acres owned by the trust in Charlotte and Shelburne. The trustees were unable to obtain David Palmer's consent to the sale of the development rights, and the agreement expired. This prompted the probate division to appoint Craig Matanle, Esq., as successor trustee for purposes of a determining a fair and equitable division of the 111 acres in Charlotte and Shelburne if the parties were unable to reach agreement by December 2014. No agreement was reached, and in January 2015, the probate division appointed Matanle as trustee of the 111-acre property for purposes of managing it and recommending an equitable division to the court.

         ¶ 9. Under this initial order, Matanle's role was limited to dividing the 111-acre property in Charlotte and Shelburne. The probate division ordered that Lorelei Kjelleren and Loren Palmer would remain as trustees for the purpose of managing and ultimately distributing the balance of the trust estate. The probate division did not address the fact that grandchild Mark Palmer had not yet received a building lot, apparently because, according to its November 2014 order, he wished at that time to receive a $30, 000 payment instead.

         ¶ 10. In March 2015, the probate division issued an order approving the trustees' decision to assign David Palmer a building lot in Hinesburg. The Hinesburg building lot is not part of the 111-acre property that the trustees intended to conserve. The order required Palmer to begin the permitting process at his own expense and stated that if he did not finish building a primary residence on the lot by May 2020, he would be required to pay the value of the land back to the trustees less $30, 000.

         ¶ 11. Meanwhile, following his appointment as trustee, Matanle met with the parties, toured the trust property, and spoke with representatives from the VLT and the Charlotte Land Trust. He also hired a forester to prepare a report on the number of maple tree taps and recommend an equitable division of the 111-acre property. Based on the forester's report and his investigation, Matanle proposed to the parties in June 2015 that David Palmer be given the northern section of the property, which was contiguous with the Hinesburg building lot and another property he owned.

         ¶ 12. The trustees objected to the proposal. Among other reasons, they argued that according to an engineering report they had commissioned, the Hinesburg lot they had offered to David Palmer could not actually be developed. The engineering firm reported in August 2015 that "the areas under investigation on the Palmer Property are not considered suitable for any type of on-site wastewater system" according to state regulations.[2] The trustees provided this report to Matanle, who asked the probate division to hold a hearing to address whether the Hinesburg lot should still be conveyed to David Palmer, as it potentially impacted the division of the 111-acre property in Charlotte and Shelburne.

         ¶ 13. At a hearing in December 2015, Palmer told the court that he still wanted the Hinesburg lot assigned to him by the trustees and would find a way to install a wastewater system. The trustees continued to oppose giving him the Hinesburg lot. The court indicated that despite the trustees' concerns over wastewater, it seemed reasonable to convey the lot to Palmer if he still wanted it.

         ¶ 14. Following the hearing, the probate division appointed Matanle as special master pursuant to 4 V.S.A. § 363 and Vermont Rule of Probate Procedure 53 "with authority to address all outstanding issues relative to the division of the [111-acre] property and David Palmer's building lot." The court did not ...

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