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In re Estate of Burke

Supreme Court of Delaware

August 24, 2017

In the Matter of the Estate of EDWARD J. BURKE
MILDRED BURKE, Defendant Below, Appellee. KEVIN BURKE, Plaintiff Below, Appellant,

          Submitted: August 23, 2017

         Court Below: Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware C.A. No. 10768

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and VAUGHN, Justices.


          Karen L. Valihura Justice.

         This 24th day of August 2017, upon consideration of the briefs and record on appeal, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) This appeal concerns a dispute between Kevin Burke ("Kevin") and his stepmother, Mildred Burke ("Mildred"), over the estate of Edward J. Burke ("Burke"), who was Kevin's father and Mildred's husband.[1] In commencing this action, Kevin alleged that, prior to Burke's death, Mildred improperly used a power of attorney to retitle one of Burke's bank accounts, which held the proceeds from Burke's sale of a property that was the subject of a specific devise in his will. The Court of Chancery granted summary judgment in Mildred's favor, holding that Burke's sale of the property resulted in an ademption of the specific bequest thereof and that trial would be "useless" because any recovery would flow to Mildred as the sole beneficiary of Burke's estate. On appeal, Kevin challenges these conclusions and the Master's determination that he lacked standing. Because we agree with the Vice Chancellor's bench ruling and his conclusion that a trial in this matter would be futile, we do not reach the Master's conclusions with respect to standing.

         (2) On March 17, 1998, Burke executed a durable power of attorney naming Mildred as his attorney-in-fact (the "POA").[2] Burke also executed a Last Will and Testament (the "Will"), which named Mildred executor of Burke's estate and trustee of a trust created in the Will (the "Trust").[3] The only asset devised to the Trust was real property titled solely in Burke's name (the "Property"). The Will provided:

BENEFICIARIES: I hereby give my home and it[s] contents located at 2225 Grundy Road, Woodbridge, Virginia to my Trustee herein named. The Trustee shall allow my daughter, Julia Ann Bibbee[, ] to live in this home for three years after my death. My daughter shall be responsible for the payment of taxes, maintenance and insurance during this time period. After three years have lapsed I direct my Trustee to sell this house and invest the net proceeds and to give the contents of the house to Julia Ann Bibbee. I direct the Trustee to pay the net income to Mildred Burke for her life. Upon the death of Mildred Burke the corpus shall be distributed equally to my four children: Julia Ann Bibbee, Edward J. Burke, Jr., Kevin T. Burke, and Elizabeth S. Frey. In the event any of my children have predeceased me then I give that child's share to his or her issue per stirpes.
I give the rest and remainder of my estate to my wife, Mildred G. Burke.[4]

         (3) On July 24, 2012, Burke sold the Property and deposited the proceeds in an account titled solely in his name.[5] After the sale, Burke's health began to decline. In January 2013, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, and Mildred began using the POA to retitle his bank accounts in both their names, including the account that held the sale proceeds. Burke passed away on October 10, 2013.

         (4) On March 10, 2015, Kevin initiated this action, alleging that Mildred breached fiduciary duties she owed to Burke as his attorney-in-fact. He asserted that Burke segregated the sale proceeds to preserve them for his children and that Mildred improperly used the POA to defeat Burke's testamentary intent. The complaint sought invalidation of these transactions, an accounting pursuant to the Delaware Durable Personal Powers of Attorney Act, [6] and imposition of a constructive trust. Mildred filed a motion to dismiss, [7] arguing that the devise of the Property lapsed when Burke sold it, such that Kevin had no interest in the sale proceeds and therefore lacked standing. The Master recommended that the Court of Chancery grant summary judgment in favor of Mildred, reasoning that Burke's sale of the Property reflected his intention to revoke the devise thereof.[8] The Master concluded that Kevin was not entitled to the proceeds of the sale and therefore lacked standing to challenge Mildred's treatment of the account holding those funds.[9]

         (5) Upon review of Kevin's exceptions to the Master's Final Report, the Vice Chancellor agreed that the specific devise of the Property "was adeemed at the time that [P]roperty was sold."[10] He did not reach the Master's standing analysis, stating:

That is an interesting question, but to my mind, it doesn't dictate the result here, because, as I pointed out earlier, equity will not require the doing of a useless thing. If there were breaches of fiduciary duty in the conduct of the attorney in fact in pulling money out of accounts prematurely, putting them in her own name, or whatever happened, if I were to so find, I would order those amounts, I suppose, put back in the estate. They would flow through the residuary clause of the estate to the beneficiary, who, it happens, is the former attorney in fact.
So it seems to me that if this went forward to a trial, one of two things would happen. Either the holder of the power would be vindicated, in which case there would be no recovery by the estate, or the exceptants would be vindicated, money would be ordered put ...

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