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Coyle v. Jones

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

November 30, 2017

KAREN COYLE, Appellant
v.
SUSAN E. JONES, INDIVIDUALLY ANDINDEPENDENT EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OFFRANCES J. HUTCHINS, DECEASED, Appellee

         On Appeal from the Probate Court No. 3 Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. PR-12-00182-3

          Before Justices Lang, Evans, and Schenck

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DAVID EVANS JUSTICE

         Karen Coyle appeals a judgment rendered after a jury trial awarding $197, 034.64 in damages to her sister, Susan E. Jones. The parties' underlying dispute arose after their mother, Frances J. Hutchins, died. Jones asserted that certain assets were part of Frances's estate while Coyle contended they belonged to a trust created in 1997 by Francis and her late husband Stuart. In four issues, Coyle complains of charge error and challenges the legal sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's verdict. Because we conclude the evidence is legally insufficient to support the jury's finding that Frances revoked the trust, we reverse the trial court's judgment and render judgment that Jones take nothing on her claims against Coyle.

         BACKGROUND

         In September 1997, Frances Hutchins and her husband Stuart (trustors) executed the Stuart Hutchins and Frances J. Hutchins Revocable Living Trust Agreement (Agreement). Among other things, the Agreement provided that, "At any time during the joint lives of the Trustors, . . . the Trustors may . . . revoke this Trust Agreement in part or in whole." It further provided that the right of revocation must be exercised by the Trustor and not by any other person, including an agent, a guardian or conservator. Finally, the Agreement provided that "except as otherwise provided, " on the death of either trustor, the designation of the beneficiaries of specific gifts in the Agreement would become irrevocable, and not subject to amendment or revocation.

         Stuart died in 2001. On April 9, 2010 Frances executed a document purporting to revoke the Agreement and transfer all trust assets to herself. Frances died in April 2011. Jones was appointed executrix of her mother's estate. She filed this suit against Coyle after Coyle took possession of $197, 034.62 in assets claiming they were assets of the 1997 trust of which she became the trustee after her mother died.

         The case proceeded to trial and the jury was instructed as follows: (1) "The Trust Agreement" means the trust created on September 27, 1997 by Stuart and Frances J. Hutchins and made the basis of this lawsuit; (2) the terms "Trustor, " and/or Settlor, " shall refer individually and collectively to Husband and Wife; and (3) a settlor may revoke a trust unless it is irrevocable by the express terms of the trust agreement creating it or of an instrument modifying it. The jury was presented with two questions. The jury answered "Yes" to the first question "Do you find that on April 9, 2010, Frances J. Hutchins revoked the Trust Agreement?" The second question, which was conditioned on a "yes" answer to the first question, asked "What amount of money, if any does Karen Coyle owe Susan E. Jones, as Independent Executor of the Estate of Francis J. Hutchins?" The jury responded to this question "$197, 034.62." The trial court rendered judgment on the jury verdict.[1] Coyle then filed a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, motion to disregard jury findings or, alternatively, a motion for new trial. The trial court granted Coyle's motion for new trial. Jones filed a petition for writ of mandamus with this Court seeking to vacate the new trial order asserting the trial court's reasons were neither sufficiently specific nor legally appropriate bases for a new trial. We conditionally granted the writ concluding, among other things, the trial court's determination that Jones produced no evidence on certain facts essential to her recovery was not a legally appropriate basis for ordering a new trial after a jury trial. In re Jones, No. 05-16-00081-CV, 2016 WL 3166080, at *3 (Tex. App.-Dallas June 7, 2016, orig. proceeding) (mem.op.). The trial court vacated its new trial order, and Coyle now appeals from the final judgment.[2]

         ANALYSIS

         Because it is dispositive of this appeal, we begin with Coyle's third issue in which she contends the evidence is legally insufficient to support the jury's finding that Frances revoked the 1997 Trust. When reviewing for legal sufficiency, we must determine whether more than a scintilla of evidence supports the jury's finding by considering evidence favorable to the finding if a reasonable fact-finder could and disregarding contrary evidence unless a reasonable fact-finder could not. Cent. Ready Mix Concrete Co. v. Islas, 228 S.W.3d 649, 651 (Tex. 2007). Evidence will be legally insufficient when there is complete absence of evidence of a vital fact, the rules of law or of evidence bar a court from giving weight to the only evidence presented to prove a vital fact, there is no more than a mere scintilla of evidence presented to prove a vital fact, or the evidence offered conclusively establishes the opposite of a vital fact. See City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 810 (Tex. 2005). In our review, we consider only evidence supporting the jury's verdict, disregarding contrary evidence, unless the contrary evidence is conclusive. City of Keller, 168 S.W.3d at 817.

         Generally, we evaluate the legal sufficiency of the evidence against the charge given where, as here, there is no objection to the form of the charge brought forward on appeal. See Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, L.L.P. v. Nat'l Dev. & Research Corp., 299 S.W.3d 106, 112 (Tex. 2009).[3] In the case before us, the jury was instructed that a settlor may revoke a trust "unless it is irrevocable by the express terms of the trust agreement creating it or of an instrument modifying it." The express language of the Agreement creating the trust at issue provided that the trust agreement could be revoked "at any time during the joint lives of the Trustors." (emphasis added). The Agreement further provided that other than that, when either trustor died, "the designation of Beneficiaries of specific gifts in this Trust shall become irrevocable, and not subject to amendment or modification." The only evidence of revocation before the jury, however, was Frances's 2010 written revocation. It is undisputed that Frances executed the revocation almost nine years after Stuart's death. Absent any evidence to support the jury finding that the Agreement was revoked while both trustors were alive, there is legally insufficient evidence to support the jury's revocation finding. To the contrary, the evidence at trial conclusively established that Frances could not revoke the Agreement after Stuart's death. Because there is no evidence to support jury's revocation finding, we resolve Coyle's third issue in her favor. Our resolution of this issue makes it unnecessary to address Coyle's issues complaining of charge error or the legal sufficiency of the jury's damage award.

          CONCLUSION

         Because we conclude the evidence is legally insufficient to support the jury's finding that Frances revoked the Agreement and that revocation was the sole basis for Jones's claim, we reverse the trial court's ...


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