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A Better Partnership
January 25, 2013

COA Opinion: Hand-written, unsigned notes effectively modified trust

Years after executing a trust containing her property that was to be conveyed to her children and grandchildren upon her death, the settlor, Stillwell, made several hand-written notes that changed aspects of the trust. She delivered the notes in a sealed envelope to her grandson with instructions to provide the envelope to the trustee upon her death or incapacitation. The trust stated that it could be amended in any manner in a written instrument delivered to the trustee. One of the handwritten notes stated that two of the grandchildren's college loans were to be paid before any other distributions were made. The envelope also contained instructions regarding distribution of personal property. Finally, the notes added the petitioner, Stillwell's son-in-law, as a beneficiary of the trust. The Michigan Court of Appeals, in In re Gwendoline Louise Stillwell Trust, affirmed the probate court's order that the written, unsigned notes properly altered the trust. Because the trust stated that it could be amended in any manner in writing, and because it was undisputed that the notes were in Stillwell's handwriting and she was not unduly influenced, it was not necessary that the notes be signed or include the word 'amendment.' But the Court of Appeals reversed the probate court's determination that a grandchild adopted six days after the grantor's death was a member of the class of beneficiaries. Although the trust included future grandchildren in the definition of beneficiaries, the beneficiaries were determined on the date of Stillwell's death. Because the adopted child was not a grandchild on the day of Stillwell's death, she was not a class member and was not entitled to a share in the estate.

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