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Intentional Interference with Expectancy and Unjust Enrichment Claims Are Not Trust Contests

Jillian M. Fino

Intentional Interference with Expectancy and Unjust Enrichment Claims Are Not Trust Contests
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In its recent decision in Sacks v. Dissinger, 488 Mass. 780, 178 N.E.3d 388 (2021), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decided whether claims of intentional interference with expectancy and unjust enrichment are trust contests barred by the one-year statute of limitations in M.G.L. c. 203E, section 604. Massachusetts’s version of the Uniform Trust Code (UTC) section 604 provides a one-year period after the settlor’s death to contest the validity of a revocable trust. The court in Sacks held that both claims are not barred by this statute of limitations, because they are distinct from a trust contest.

Aaron and Sheila Sacks had five children, Jeffery Sacks, Nancy Dissinger, Joan Rosenthal, Donna Sacks, and Cheryl Sacks O’Toole. Aaron established the Aaron H. Sacks Revocable Trust in 2011. It provided that after Aaron’s and Sheila’s deaths, each of their children would receive a one fifth share and, if any of their children should predecease them, then to the child’s heirs. In June of 2012, Jeffery died after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He decided to decline further treatment based on the doctor’s recommendation and with his son’s, Donna’s, and Cheryl’s support. Encouraged by Nancy, Sheila blamed Jeffery’s son and her daughters for Jeffery’s death. A few months after Jeffery’s death, Sheila and Nancy convinced Aaron to remove Jeffery’s heirs from the trust. Aaron then amended the trust to divide the property equally among the four daughters. Aaron died in August 2017 and Sheila died in July 2019.

The plaintiffs, Matthew and Rebecca, Jeffery’s two children, learned about the amendment after Sheila’s death in July 2019. In November 2019, plaintiffs commenced this action bringing three counts: (1) rescission of the 2012 amendment because of undue influence by Nancy and Sheila; (2) intentional interference with advantageous relations against Sheila’s estate and Nancy; and (3) unjust enrichment against all of Aaron’s daughters. A motion to dismiss was filed based on the one-year statute of limitations. The one-year statutory period expired in 2018, one year after Aaron’s death. The plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed only count one, the rescission claim.

The trial judge granted the motion to dismiss. The trial judge held that intentional interference and unjust enrichment were, in substance, a challenge to the validity of the trust. The plaintiffs appealed. The Supreme Judicial Court directly reviewed the appeal on its own motion. It held that the two counts are substantially different from trust contests governed by § 604 and are not time barred.

The Supreme Judicial Court took a functionalist/practical approach to analyze what a trust contest means. According to the court, a trust contest is in rem or quasi in rem; the remedy sought is against the trust itself rather than people. A non-contest action, in contrast, is where the underlying facts are assessed for their effect on a person and not on their effect on all or part of the trust. The court held that intentional interference with expectancy is not itself a trust contest; it is an in personam claim against individuals for tortious conduct causing the plaintiff injury. In reaching this conclusion, the court also relied on a comment to section 604 of the UTC, which expressly states that intentional interference is not a trust contest and not subject to the one-year statute of limitations. The court further reasoned that this claim was predicated on the trust being valid because otherwise the putative tortfeasors would not have committed a wrong and there would be no injury without the 2012 amendment having been valid and operative.

The court differentiated trusts from wills by noting that wills must go through probate and are automatically reviewed by the courts, and notice must be given to heirs at law and devisees. For trusts, on the other hand, only qualified beneficiaries have access to information about the trust, and trusts are not reviewed by courts except in trust contests. Here, the plaintiffs did not even learn of their claim until after the one-year statute of limitations had passed. (Based on the outcome reached, the court did not reach whether section 604 reflects a statute of limitations or repose, i.e., whether the discovery rule might apply to toll the statutory period.)

The court also held that the plaintiffs’ unjust enrichment claim is not a trust contest. The court reasoned that unjust enrichment was similar to intentional interference except that it was based in equity, and does not require wrongdoing or bad faith per se. The court further reasoned that this equity claim, like the plaintiffs’ tort claim, does not concern the validity of the 2012 amendment to the trust instrument.

Practitioners should take note that this decision demonstrates that undue influence claims are not limited to in rem and quasi in rem trust contests; they can be employed through independent, in personam claims sounding in tort and equity. There is good reason to plead in the alternative.