THE STIPULATION AND AGREED ORDER APPOINTING A LIMITED GUARDIAN CONTAINED LATENT AMBIGUITIES WHETHER A VOLUNTARY OR INVOLUNTARY GUARDIANSHIP WERE INTENDED, AND WHETHER THE WARD RETAINED THE RIGHT TO AMEND HER TRUST

Posted on March 14, 2015

In Whiting v. Whiting, 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 2747 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), genuine issues of material fact regarding the interpretation of a stipulation for limited guardianship (“Stipulation”) and an Order Appointing Guardian upon Stipulated Limited Guardianship (“Guardianship Order”) were found to preclude summary judgment where it was unclear whether the guardianship was intended to be voluntary or involuntary guardianship. The distinction between voluntary and involuntary was uncertain, and the language of the Guardianship Order was unclear as to whether the Ward retained the power to amend her trust or estate planning documents.  In the instant case, Jeffrey Whiting, one of the two surviving sons of Lorraine Y. Whiting (“Ward”), appealed the summary judgment in favor of the Ward’s other son, Anthony Whiting.  Because the Fifth District Court of Appeal (“5th DCA)” found genuine issues of material fact, it reversed and remanded to the trial court.

In 1991, Ward established a trust to provide assets equally to her three sons, Jeffrey, Anthony, and Nicholas, upon her death.  Nicholas Whiting died prior to the Ward, and Anthony Whiting was appointed Personal Representative of Nicholas’ estate.  Based upon the Stipulation, the trial court entered the Guardianship Order and appointed a limited guardian.  The Guardianship Order limited the Ward’s ability to manage her financial affairs for any single transaction over $1,500.00 and limited her ability to give gifts to $1,500.00 per person per year.  After the entry of the Guardianship Order, the Ward executed a Second Amendment to her Trust, designating Jeffrey as sole residuary beneficiary of her Trust.  She thereby disinherited Anthony and any lineal descendants of Nicholas.  After the Ward’s death, Anthony filed a complaint to set aside the Second Amendment, and thereafter sought a summary judgment based upon the plain language of the Guardianship Order. The trial court concluded that the Guardianship Order was clear and unambiguous and refused to consider parol evidence of the parties intentions. The court interpreted the provisions limiting the Ward’s ability to make gifts or engage in financial transactions greater than $1,500.00 as an unambiguous restriction on her ability to amend her trust. Thus, the trial court granted summary judgment, set aside the Second Amendment, and restored the prior trust provisions.  On appeal, Jeffrey asserts that the trial court erred by not considering parol evidence in construing the provisions of the Stipulation and Agreed Order.

The Fifth DCA disagreed with the trial court, finding that the Stipulation and Guardianship Order contained ambiguities which presented genuine issues of material fact, precluding summary judgment. The Guardianship Order was not clear whether the guardianship intended was a voluntary or involuntary guardianship. The lack of a specific finding that the Ward was incapacitated, as required for an involuntary guardianship, suggests that the Ward agreed to a voluntary guardianship.  However, the Stipulation did not include the required certificate from a physician requiring her competent to understand the nature of the guardianship.  Moreover, the language of the Stipulation and Agreed Order did not clearly address whether the Ward retained the power to amend her trust or any other estate planning documents. As such, there were genuine issues of material fact as to the interpretation of the Stipulation and the Agreed Order, thereby precluding a summary judgment. On remand, the trial court was required to consider parol evidence in interpreting the Stipulation and Agreed Order.  The opinion contains an excellent analysis of latent vs. patent ambiguities.  An exception to the parol evidence rule arises when an agreement contains latent ambiguities.

In Whiting v. Whiting, 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 2747 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), genuine issues of material fact regarding the interpretation of a stipulation for limited guardianship (“Stipulation”) and an Order Appointing Guardian upon Stipulated Limited Guardianship (“Guardianship Order”) were found to preclude summary judgment where it was unclear whether the guardianship was intended to be voluntary or involuntary guardianship. The distinction between voluntary and involuntary was uncertain, and the language of the Guardianship Order was unclear as to whether the Ward retained the power to amend her trust or estate planning documents.  In the instant case, Jeffrey Whiting, one of the two surviving sons of Lorraine Y. Whiting (“Ward”), appealed the summary judgment in favor of the Ward’s other son, Anthony Whiting.  Because the Fifth District Court of Appeal (“5th DCA)” found genuine issues of material fact, it reversed and remanded to the trial court.

In 1991, Ward established a trust to provide assets equally to her three sons, Jeffrey, Anthony, and Nicholas, upon her death.  Nicholas Whiting died prior to the Ward, and Anthony Whiting was appointed Personal Representative of Nicholas’ estate.  Based upon the Stipulation, the trial court entered the Guardianship Order and appointed a limited guardian.  The Guardianship Order limited the Ward’s ability to manage her financial affairs for any single transaction over $1,500.00 and limited her ability to give gifts to $1,500.00 per person per year.  After the entry of the Guardianship Order, the Ward executed a Second Amendment to her Trust, designating Jeffrey as sole residuary beneficiary of her Trust.  She thereby disinherited Anthony and any lineal descendants of Nicholas.  After the Ward’s death, Anthony filed a complaint to set aside the Second Amendment, and thereafter sought a summary judgment based upon the plain language of the Guardianship Order. The trial court concluded that the Guardianship Order was clear and unambiguous and refused to consider parol evidence of the parties intentions. The court interpreted the provisions limiting the Ward’s ability to make gifts or engage in financial transactions greater than $1,500.00 as an unambiguous restriction on her ability to amend her trust. Thus, the trial court granted summary judgment, set aside the Second Amendment, and restored the prior trust provisions.  On appeal, Jeffrey asserts that the trial court erred by not considering parol evidence in construing the provisions of the Stipulation and Agreed Order.

The Fifth DCA disagreed with the trial court, finding that the Stipulation and Guardianship Order contained ambiguities which presented genuine issues of material fact, precluding summary judgment. The Guardianship Order was not clear whether the guardianship intended was a voluntary or involuntary guardianship. The lack of a specific finding that the Ward was incapacitated, as required for an involuntary guardianship, suggests that the Ward agreed to a voluntary guardianship.  However, the Stipulation did not include the required certificate from a physician requiring her competent to understand the nature of the guardianship.  Moreover, the language of the Stipulation and Agreed Order did not clearly address whether the Ward retained the power to amend her trust or any other estate planning documents. As such, there were genuine issues of material fact as to the interpretation of the Stipulation and the Agreed Order, thereby precluding a summary judgment. On remand, the trial court was required to consider parol evidence in interpreting the Stipulation and Agreed Order.  The opinion contains an excellent analysis of latent vs. patent ambiguities.  An exception to the parol evidence rule arises when an agreement contains latent ambiguities.

If you or anyone you know is in need of representation in actions involving Guardianship, Probate and/or Trust Disputes, or questions pertaining to such proceedings, please contact The Law Offices of Glenn M. Mednick, P.L., at (954) 315-1154 or gmednick@mednicklawgroup.com.

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