Sullivan v. Burkin
390 Mass. 864, 460 N.E.2d 571 (1984)

  • Sullivan created an inter vivos trust. The income from the trust was payable to Sullivan while he was alive and he retained the right to revoke the trust at any time. It contained a provision that upon his death, the contents of the trust went to Cronin Sr. and Cronin Jr.
    • Sullivan then put the bulk of his estate into the trust.
  • Sullivan had a will that explicitly left nothing to his wife.
    • Under Massachusetts State law, a surviving spouse can chose to take an elective share of a decedent’s estate in lieu of what they were offered in the will.
      • The surviving spouse then gets what they would have received if the decedent died intestate.
    • The Sullivans had been separated for many years but had never bothered to get a divorce.
  • Sullivan died. Sullivan’s wife sued to have the contents of the trust declared part of the augmented estate.
    • The augmented estate includes everything in the will, plus everything that transfers through non-probate means (trusts, insurance, 401k, etc.)
    • The trust’s new trustee, Burkin claimed that the trust was not part of the augmented estate.
  • The Probate Court found for Burkin and said that the trust was not part of Sullivan’s estate. Sullivan’s wife appealed.
  • The Massachusetts Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that after this opinion, all inter vivos trusts shall be considered to be part of the estate of the decedent if the decedent alone retained the power during their life to direct the disposition of the trust assets for their benefit.
      • That includes retaining the ability to revoke the trust or retaining the general power of appointment.
        • A power of appointment is the ability of the testator to select a person who will be given the authority to dispose of certain property under the will.
    • However, for this case, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided to stick with previous Massachusetts precedent and declare the inter vivos trust to be valid and therefore not part of Sullivan’s estate.
  • The basic rule that the Massachusetts Court came up with here is that if the decedent alone possessed a general power of appointment in a trust, then that trust is considered part of the augmented estate, regardless of intent or motive.