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Tort Law Supreme Court Opinion

by Agati, Taryn


SC20676 - Barash v. Lembo ("The primary issue in this appeal is whether the trustee of an inter vivos trust that is the residuary beneficiary of the estate of the settlor-decedent has a duty to protect and collect assets that have not yet been transferred to the trust. After providing for the payment of debts and taxes and setting forth a number of specific bequests, the will of the decedent, Richard Ripps, who died in 2006, bequeathed the residue of his estate to an amended and restated revocable trust benefiting his three children, the plaintiffs Jennie R. Ripps, Michael J. Ripps, and Elizabeth J. Ripps (trust beneficiaries).The present action and five other consolidated cases concern the proper administration of that portion of the decedent's residuary estate that has not yet been distributed to the trust. In particular, the undistributed assets consist of a 49 percent interest in certain commercial real estate development projects (residuary assets), including properties owned by Evergreen Walk, LLC (Evergreen Walk), Northern Hills, LLC (Northern Hills), and M/S Town Line Associates, LLC (M/S Town Line Associates) (collectively, commercial assets).

Approximately seventeen years later, the estate has not yet settled. In 2018, the trust beneficiaries and their mother, the plaintiff Susan Shapiro Barash, one of three cotrustees of the Richard Ripps Amended and Restated Revocable Trust Dated February 8, 2008, filed this action in the Superior Court, alleging that the defendant and cotrustee, Barbara Lembo, breached her fiduciary duty as trustee by failing to protect and collect trust property, to investigate or ask questions regarding the alleged misconduct of the executor of the estate, Laurence P. Rubinow, and to seek recovery from and hold Rubinow accountable for any damages sustained by the trust as a result of the alleged misconduct. The plaintiffs sought damages and the removal of the defendant as cotrustee. The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the defendant, who was the decedent's widow, on the basis of its conclusion that the defendant, as a trustee, had no duty, prior to the distribution of the residuary assets, to take any action against Rubinow with respect to those assets—including investigating, questioning or monitoring Rubinow's administration of the estate, or, as the trial court stated, to "[s]hap[e]" or "gather" the property that has not yet poured over into the trust.

We agree with the plaintiffs that the trial court incorrectly concluded that, as a matter of law, no material issue of fact remained as to whether the defendant owed the trust beneficiaries a duty to collect and protect the prospective trust property in the residuary estate. We also conclude that the complaint sufficiently alleges a cause of action against the defendant for breach of her fiduciary duty as trustee. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.")