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In re Elizabeth A. Briggs Revocable Living Trust

Supreme Court of South Dakota

June 28, 2017

IN RE: THE ELIZABETH A. BRIGGS REVOCABLE LIVING TRUST.

          CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON MAY 30, 2017

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE THIRD JUDICIAL CIRCUIT SANBORN COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE JON R. ERICKSON Judge

          MARY A. AKKERMAN NICOLE O. TUPMAN of Lindquist & Vennum, LLP Sioux Falls, South Dakota Attorneys for petitioner and appellant, Thomas F. Briggs.

          SHEILA S. WOODWARD PAUL T. VAN OLSON of Johnson, Miner, Marlow, Woodward & Huff, LLC Yankton, South Dakota Attorneys for trustee and appellee, Judith Briggs.

          ZINTER, JUSTICE

         [¶1.] SDCL 55-4-57(a) limits the time to commence a judicial proceeding contesting "whether a revocable trust or any amendment thereto, or an irrevocable trust was validly created." Settlor amended her revocable trust to expressly disinherit her son. Following settlor's death, her son commenced this action to invalidate the amendments on the grounds that settlor lacked capacity and was unduly influenced. Son also requested an accounting and made a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. Son, however, commenced the action more than sixty days after he received an SDCL 55-4-57(a)(2) notice that he had sixty days to commence a judicial proceeding regarding the trust. We affirm the circuit court's dismissal of the lack-of-capacity and undue-influence claims as untimely. We affirm the dismissal of the breach-of-fiduciary-duty claim and the request for an accounting on other grounds.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2.] Judith and Thomas Briggs are the two children of Willard and Elizabeth Briggs. On November 28, 1995, both Willard and Elizabeth executed several estate planning documents, including separate revocable trusts. Elizabeth amended her trust on two occasions. In 2009, she amended it to expressly remove Thomas as a beneficiary and provide that her assets were to be distributed to Judith after Elizabeth's death. The amended trust stated: "Grantor has purposely omitted her son, Thomas F. Briggs, from any provisions hereunder for reasons known to him and also for reasons identified in a letter which Grantor has signed and directed her attorney to retain and deliver to her son, Tom, at Grantor's demise." In 2012, Elizabeth amended her trust to expressly omit Thomas's daughter.

         [¶3.] Elizabeth died on July 16, 2013. On August 15, 2013, an attorney for Elizabeth's trust and estate sent Thomas a letter informing him of his mother's death and that she had left him no property.[1] Pursuant to SDCL 55-4-57(a)(2), the attorney also sent Thomas a copy of the trust documents, the trustee's name and address, and a "Notice of Time for Commencing Judicial Proceedings." The notice advised Thomas that he had sixty days to commence any judicial proceeding regarding the trust.

         [¶4.] Thomas did not file this petition to contest Elizabeth's two trust amendments within sixty days. Instead, he emailed the Sanborn County clerk of courts and the trust's attorney. The email contained an unsigned, pro se "Notice of Objection to the Trust Instrument for Elizabeth A. Briggs."[2] The notice did not, however, identify what the objection was or any reason for it; and it contained no request for relief. It merely stated that Thomas was "giving notice of objection to the trust instruments." Because there was no file opened regarding Elizabeth's trust, the clerk filed Thomas's notice in a miscellaneous file folder. Thomas was aware that no court file was opened.

         [¶5.] On April 18, 2015-611 days after Thomas received notice that he had sixty days to commence a judicial proceeding-Thomas commenced this proceeding to contest the trust amendments. He alleged the amendments were invalid because Elizabeth lacked capacity and was unduly influenced by Judith, who was a beneficiary and the trustee. Thomas's petition also included a claim that Judith breached her fiduciary duty and requested that Judith "be held liable for any and all damages caused by the breach of her fiduciary duties." Thomas did not, however, name Judith as a party defendant or commence an action against her in her individual capacity. Finally, Thomas's petition contained a request for an accounting.

         [¶6.] Judith in her capacity as trustee moved to dismiss the petition. She contended that Thomas's claims were barred by SDCL 55-4-57(a)'s time limitations for commencing a judicial proceeding. The circuit court granted the motion and dismissed the petition. The court concluded that although Thomas sent his Notice of Objection within sixty days, he did not commence a judicial proceeding. The court also ruled that the doctrines of substantial compliance and equitable estoppel did not apply. Thomas appeals.[3]

         Decision

         [¶7.] Thomas first argues the circuit court erroneously interpreted SDCL 55-4-57(a) as a statute of limitations that barred his claims. He contends his action should be governed by the general six-year statute of limitations in SDCL 15-2-13. In response, Judith argues SDCL 55-4-57(a) operates as both ...


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