U.S. Eighth Circuit - The FindLaw 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Handwritten Letter Didn't Amend Trust: Mo. Supreme Court

Dr. K.R. Conklin had two children from his first marriage, and then acquired two stepchildren (not adopted) via his second marriage. In 1996, before his second marriage, he created a trust for the benefit of his biological children only (conveniently called "Children" in the opinion).

In 2002, Conklin and his second wife Jo undertook a cross-country trip by plane and automobile. On their way to the airport, Conklin wrote a letter by hand indicating what should happen to his estate if he and his wife should die during this trip. The letter included the two stepchildren in the distribution of Conklin's assets. He left the letter in the car's glovebox, which was parked at the airport.

Family Feud

Conklin and his wife did not die on that trip. They returned safe and sound. Conklin eventually died in 2009. The letter was never delivered to the children or stepchildren; instead, it was found among his papers after his death.

Conklin's stepchildren (also conveniently called "Stepchildren") sued to get the original trust document voided, and to have assets distributed to them pursuant to the letter, which they claim amended the trust.

Neither the trial court nor the appellate court saw it that way, finding that the letter was conditional and would only have taken effect if both Conklin and his wife hadn't returned from their 2002 trip. The Missouri Supreme Court took a far easier route: It held that the letter didn't manifest an intent to amend the trust at all -- or, at least, the Stepchildren never proved that it did.

Intent to Amend

Even though Conklin had the authority to amend the trust -- it was his trust, after all -- the Stepchildren failed when it came to showing that, somewhere within the four corners of that handwritten letter, authored on the way to the airport, Conklin demonstrated an intent to amend the original trust.

The court said he didn't. Invoking some pretty pedantic logic, the court said the document was "a 'farewell' letter from Dr. and Mrs. Conklin to their children, nothing more." On its face, this assertion seems incredible: The letter states, "The trust has not been updated for several years so I will express my desire on how I wish everything to be handled." Then it proceeds to divvy up Conklin's stuff. This wasn't enough for the court: The letter contained no heading claiming it was an amendment, didn't explicitly refer to the trust, and didn't use language consistent with amending the trust -- notably, it expressed wishes or desires, using no mandatory language.

That Whole Discussion Was Unnecessary

But more convincing than the court's argument about Conklin's intent were some other facts: By its terms, the trust couldn't be amended without delivering an amendment to the trustee. And much of the property referenced in the letter couldn't be disposed of the way Conklin allegedly wanted it to be because it was held as a business or in joint tenancy.

The Missouri Supreme Court got this case right, in spite of the letter looking a whole like it manifested an intent to amend the trust.

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