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Appellate court divided over trust liability

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The Indiana Court of Appeals split Monday in a probate suit involving whether trustees failed to distribute a portion of the trust corpus in a timely manner. The majority upheld finding the trustees liable, but ordered a re-evaluation of compensatory damages and attorney fees.

Brothers Harrison “Nick” Eiteljorg II and Jack Eiteljorg were the remainder beneficiaries of a trust their father set up effective upon his death in 1997. Their mother, Sonja, was designated sole beneficiary; she died in 2003. Nick, his stepson Roger, and accountant John Lienhart were co-trustees of the trust.

In October 2004, the parties met to discuss the distribution of trust property, which consisted of $6.5 million, including $3.2 million in liquid assets. Nick wanted he and his brother to receive $2 million total, but Lienhart disagreed because he was worried about any remaining estate tax that may be owed. Roger and Lienhart suggested distributing only $1 million total, which Nick rejected and later stormed out. The dispute led to a petition to probate court to remove Lienhart and Roger as trustees. Nick and Jack filed notice raising 13 claims of breach of trust, but Judge Charles Dieter only found they breached two duties and ordered immediate distribution of $1.5 million, which included about $300,000 in non-liquid assets, to Nick and Jack.

Judge Dieter died before he could rule on the issue of damages, so Judge Tanya Walton Pratt concluded that the relevant damages period lasted from October 2004 to October 2007 when the trust was wrapped up. She awarded Nick more than $150,000 representing lost earnings from an investment opportunity and awarded Jack more than $110,000 in lost profits from his missed real estate deal. She also awarded them more than $353,000 in attorney fees.

In In the Matter of the Trust of Harrison Eiteljorg, No. 49A02-1005-TR-485, Judges Nancy Vaidik and Michael Barnes upheld Judge Dieter’s finding that John and Roger breached their duty to administer the trust according to its terms, but they found Judge Pratt erred in her assessment of damages. They should not have been allowed to recover damages for their lost investment opportunities under Indiana Code 30-4-3-11(b)(3) because that section applies to profits lost to the trust corpus due to a trustee’s misuse, not to allow beneficiaries to recover for individual profits they would have allegedly generated on their personal shares but for the trustee’s failure to timely distribute, wrote Judge Vaidik. The issue here is more like a claim for conversion.

Nick and Jack were deprived of the $1.2 million ordered by Judge Deiter for only 9 months, so they are only entitled to interest for those months. Any assessment of compensatory damages beyond that point is erroneous, she wrote. The majority also reduced the attorney fees to $150,000 based on the record.

Judge John Baker dissented on the issue of whether Lienhart and Roger committed a breach of the trust. He noted that Nick originally rejected Lienhart and Roger’s distribution proposal. Lienhart had many years of experience as an accountant and believed that the $2 million he wanted to hold back for taxes was appropriate. When the dispute arose, Lienhart and Roger petitioned for instructions from the probate court, and once instructed, they immediately made the distributions as ordered.  

“In my view, to penalize John and Roger for doing that which we consistently direct trustees to do — and which they are statutorily entitled to do — is misguided and contrary to law,” he wrote.

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  1. I need an experienced attorney to handle a breach of contract matter. Kindly respond for more details. Graham Young

  2. I thought the slurs were the least grave aspects of her misconduct, since they had nothing to do with her being on the bench. Why then do I suspect they were the focus? I find this a troubling trend. At least she was allowed to keep her law license.

  3. Section 6 of Article I of the Indiana Constitution is pretty clear and unequivocal: "Section 6. No money shall be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious or theological institution."

  4. Video pen? Nice work, "JW"! Let this be a lesson and a caution to all disgruntled ex-spouses (or soon-to-be ex-spouses) . . . you may think that altercation is going to get you some satisfaction . . . it will not.

  5. First comment on this thread is a fitting final comment on this thread, as that the MCBA never answered Duncan's fine question, and now even Eric Holder agrees that the MCBA was in material error as to the facts: "I don't get it" from Duncan December 1, 2014 5:10 PM "The Grand Jury met for 25 days and heard 70 hours of testimony according to this article and they made a decision that no crime occurred. On what basis does the MCBA conclude that their decision was "unjust"? What special knowledge or evidence does the MCBA have that the Grand Jury hearing this matter was unaware of? The system that we as lawyers are sworn to uphold made a decision that there was insufficient proof that officer committed a crime. How can any of us say we know better what was right than the jury that actually heard all of the the evidence in this case."

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