John Morris, Jr., ironically a lawyer by trade, transferred sizable property holdings of harvestable timber, farmlands, and wetlands contemporaneously with the creation Morris Grove Plantation Trust Agreement in 1983. Two of the four brothers, John E. Morris III and Robert J. Morris, were named as co-trustees while all of the siblings, John, Robert, Constance “Connie” Heiskell, Hugh Morris, Thomas Morris, and Lorraine Morris II, were named beneficiaries of the trust, each signing the Trust Agreement. Possibly laying the foundation for the future familial litigation, the transfers were accomplished via the staggered issuance of three warranty deeds to “John E. Morris, III and Robert J. Morris, as Trustees.” The Trust Agreement was not recorded contemporaneously with the transfers. While the trial record was “thin,” property was used exclusively and continuously for family and commercial purposes primarily timber foresting.
On May 16, 2013, John filed a single count complaint against his brother Robert to partition the Morris Grove Plantation, seeking the appointment of a special magistrate to sell the property and divided the net proceeds. Robert moved to dismiss the case on the basis that the property was held in trust for all siblings and not subject to a partition action citing to his filing of the Trust Agreement in June 2013 moving under Fla. Stat. § 689.07.
B. Procedural Posture
The trial court entered Summary Judgment finding that John and Robert held the property in fee simple absolute because (a) the Trust Agreement was not of record at the time of the deeds’ recordation, (b) the deeds contained no names of any beneficiaries or language stating the nature and purpose of the trust, and (c) nothing in the deeds expressed an intention that the grantees-trustees receive anything other than a fee simple estate
Whether the trial court correctly held that the deeds and conveyances of the Morris Grove Plantation to siblings, John and Robert, granted them the right to sell the property and share the proceeds between themselves, despite the existence of the Trust Agreement. (Emphasis Supplied.
The Appellate Court noted that Fla. Stat. § 689.07(1), which had been on the books in same language since 1915 holds in part;
(1) Every deed or conveyance of real estate heretofore or hereafter made or executed in which the words “trustee” or “as trustee” are added to the name of the grantee, and in which no beneficiaries are named, the nature and purposes of the trust, if any, are not set forth, and the trust is not identified by title or date, shall grant and is hereby declared to have granted a fee simple estate with full power and authority in and to the grantee in such deed to sell, convey, and grant and encumber both the legal and beneficial interest in the real estate conveyed, unless a contrary intention shall appear in the deed or conveyance; provided, that there shall not appear of record among the public records of the county in which the real property is situate at the time of recording of such deed or conveyance….(emphasis in the original.)
The Appellate Court noted that while subsection one had remained virtually unchanged since 1915, the legislature had updated the statute including:
(4) Nothing herein contained shall prevent any person from causing any declaration of trust to be recorded before or after the recordation of the instrument evidencing title or ownership of property in a trustee; nor shall this section be construed as preventing any beneficiary under an unrecorded declaration of trust from enforcing the terms thereof against the trustee … (emphasis in the original.)
The Appellate Court noted subsection (1) of the statute is designed to protect innocent third parties from “secret” trusts that are neither mentioned on the face of recorded deeds nor otherwise made known in the public records. The Appellate Court noted that John—as named co-trustee and beneficiary—has known for over thirty years of the existence of the family trust (which he signed), including his fiduciary role as a trustee. Further, subsection (4) specifically allowed for such recordation and the enforcement of the terms of a trust “against the trustee” to effectuate its purpose even after the recording of the deed
After applying Fla. Stat. § 689.07 to the facts, First District Court Reversed and Remanded with instructions to enter Judgment against John Morris.
The full opinion may be found at: https://edca.1dca.org/DCADocs/2015/0365/150365_1287_12222015_115510_i.pdf