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Ackerman v. Abbott

September 3, 2009

STEPHEN J. ACKERMAN, JR., APPELLANT,
v.
FRANK M. ABBOTT, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB6231-07) (Hon. Judith E. Retchin, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Senior Judge

Argued May 15, 2009

Before RUIZ and OBERLY, Associate Judges, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

One of the most ancient questions that courts (and generations of law students) have been called on to answer is: Who owns Blackacre? So here, in this appeal, we examine the competing claims of two parties to a piece of real property. One, the appellee, is the grantee as trustee of a fee-simple deed of the property that the grantor, at the time of the conveyance, did not own. The other, the appellant, is the subsequent assignee of the grantor's interest in a different trust of which she was the sole principal beneficiary and whose res was to include the same parcel of property she had previously conveyed. We apply the after-acquired title doctrine, together with basic principles of property law, and conclude that the trial court properly held that the earlier-intime grantee has the superior claim to the property.

I.

Because the facts of the case matter greatly to our disposition, we recount them in detail. At issue in this case is improved real property located at 136 North Carolina Avenue, in Northeast Washington, D.C. (the "Property"). In 1972, the Property, which had been in their family for many years, came to be owned as tenants in common by two sisters: Margaret Mary Sullivan (hereinafter "Margaret") and Genevieve Frances Sullivan (later Ackerman) (hereinafter "Genevieve").

In August 2001, Margaret died testate leaving most of her estate (which included her half-interest in the Property), to the Margaret Mary Sullivan Revocable Trust ("MMSRT"), a revocable living trust she had created in 1995. Under the terms of the trust, the trustee was to pay over to the settlor all income of the trust estate for the duration of her life. Upon her death, and after payment of all taxes and funeral expenses, the trust instructed the trustee to distribute all trust property to her sister Genevieve if she survived Margaret by thirty days and was legally competent at the time of her death. MMSRT appointed appellant herein, Stephen Ackerman, Jr. ("appellant"), Margaret's nephew and Genevieve's son, as trustee upon her death or incapacitation. MMSRT also appointed Mary Frances Ackerman Abbott ("Mary Frances"), who was Margaret's niece, Genevieve's daughter and appellant's sister, as successor trustee. Similarly, appellant and Mary Frances were appointed as personal representative and successor personal representative, respectively, under Margaret's will.

Margaret's interest in the Property was never conveyed to MMSRT during her lifetime.*fn1 At the time of Margaret's death, the parties apparently believed that Margaret and Genevieve had owned the Property as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and thus Margaret's probate estate did not include the Property. Accordingly, when appellant opened Margaret's estate for probate in 2001, he did so under our law as a "small estate" under D.C. Code § 20-352 without reference to her interest in the Property.

On May 24, 2002, subsequent to Margaret's death, Genevieve and her husband Steven Ackerman executed two separate trusts: the Genevieve Ackerman Family Trust ("GAFT") and the Steven Ackerman Family Trust ("SAFT"). Both trusts named appellee herein, Frank M. Abbott, as trustee. On June 27, 2002, believing that she owned the Property outright in fee simple after she survived her sister Margaret, Genevieve executed a deed conveying an undivided, one-half interest in the Property to each of the trusts (GAFT and SAFT).*fn2 The deed was recorded in the land records of the District of Columbia.*fn3

In 2003, appellant sought to have his mother's trust, GAFT, reformed, arguing that a condominium his mother owned in Delaware had been placed in the trust contrary to his mother's wishes that it go to him. The trial court ruled against him, and enforced the trust's "no contest" clause, which had the effect of disinheriting appellant, who was named as a beneficiary under the trust. We upheld the court's application of the "no contest" provision on appeal. Ackerman v. Genevieve Ackerman Family Trust, 908 A.2d 1200, 1201--02 (D.C. 2006). After the trial court's ruling in 2005, Genevieve had attempted to revoke the trust and require Frank Abbott, as trustee, to transfer all trust assets to her. Concluding that Article II of GAFT required the trustee's assent to revoke the trust, the trial court held that Genevieve could not revoke the trust without Abbott's consent. No appeal was taken from this holding.

In April 2007, it was discovered that Genevieve and Margaret had owned the Property not as joint tenants with right of survivorship, but as tenants in common. In order to perfect the trusts' interests in the Property, Frank Abbott, as trustee for GAFT and SAFT, asked appellant to re-open Margaret's probate estate to allow appellant to (i) convey Margaret's undivided one-half interest to himself as trustee of MMSRT, and (ii) then convey her interest to Genevieve in accordance with the terms of the trust. Appellant refused to re-open the estate. Accordingly, Abbott moved to replace appellant as personal representative with appellant's sister, Mary Frances, whom Margaret's will nominated as successor personal representative. The trial court granted Abbott's motion, and on June 29, 2007, ordered Mary Frances to transfer Margaret's "one-half interest in the property . . . to Stephen J. Ackerman, Jr., as the Trustee of the Margaret Mary Sullivan Revocable Living Trust, for distribution to Genevieve Sullivan Ackerman."*fn4

Two months later, on August 31, 2007, Genevieve executed an instrument by which she assigned "all rights, title, and interest I now have, or in the future may have, in the assets, both real and personal, current and future, and all distributions realized from the sale of Trust assets, of the Margaret Mary Sullivan Revocable Living Trust, to my beloved son Stephen J. Ackerman, Jr."

On September 11, 2007, Frank Abbott filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in the Superior Court, seeking in effect a holding that his right to ownership as trustee of the two trusts by reason of the deed was superior to that of appellant as assignee. Abbott moved for summary judgment. Opposing the motion, appellant argued that the doctrine of after-acquired title would not operate to benefit the trusts. According to appellant, because Genevieve had assigned all her rights as beneficiary of MMSRT to him, Genevieve could never acquire legal title to the Property making the after-acquired title doctrine inapplicable, and any transfer of the Property out of MMSRT to Genevieve would, under the assignment, pass solely to him.

In a February 6, 2008, Order, the trial court granted summary judgment against appellant and ...


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