Jan 10, 2020

Family Fighting Over Former Attorney General's Childhood Home

You could be forgiven for thinking that the estate plan of one of the nation's most prominent legal authorities would be absolutely airtight. But you would be wrong. 

Janet Reno was appointed U.S. Attorney General by President Clinton, the first woman to serve in that role. Raised in Miami, Reno subsequently ran an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Florida governorship. She died as a result of Parkinson's Disease in 2016, age 78.

Reno had no husband or children. Her revocable trust listed her seven nieces and nephews as beneficiaries, and named one of them, James Hurchalla, as her successor trustee. Her estate plan gave special consideration to her longtime Dade County home. A unique piece of property amidst suburban sprawl, the rustic ranch home was built by hand by Reno's mother in the 1940s. It sits on four acres of undeveloped land, can be reached only via a dirt road, and is hidden from view by thick vegetation. Reno's estate plan bequeathed  the property to the University of Miami, on the condition that it preserve the property and keep it undeveloped. 

Just one problem, and a big one: The University of Miami did not want it, citing the expense of maintaining it.

Because Reno had failed to include alternative arrangements for the property, her successor trustee, James Hurchalla, sought out an alternative educational institution for the bequest. Miami-Dade College, located just a quarter mile from the ranch, agreed to take the property and preserve it as Reno had specified. The Miami-Dade Circuit Court approved the substitution, stating: "...If a particular charitable purpose becomes unlawful, impracticable, impossible to achieve, or wasteful, the court may...modify or terminate the trust. … in a manner consistent with the settlor’s charitable purposes.”

But now another problem: One of Reno's beneficiaries, her niece Janet M. Reno, wasn't on board with the decision. She has argued that since the property will not pass as Reno originally intended, it must be sold and the proceeds distributed to the nieces and nephews. She took her case to the Miami-based Third Court of Appeals, but it ruled against her in August 2019, finding that substituting a different school conformed to her aunt's wishes: "The University of Miami’s declination to accept the charitable transfer made the original disposition impossible to achieve. But the successor trustee identified an even closer charitable, educational institution to accept the gift and to comply fully with Ms. Reno’s conditions ‘in perpetuity,’ respecting the ‘unique character’ and ‘historical importance’ of the Reno homestead."

But that is not the end of it. The legal slog is ongoing. Late last year Reno took her case up to the Florida Supreme Court. Once her aunt died the trust became irrevocable, argue her lawyers, and the terms cannot be changed. In other words, Miami-Dade College cannot take the place of the University of Miami. Write her attorneys of the lower court's decision: "The opinion if allowed to stand would allow Florida courts and fiduciaries to alter the testamentary intent of Floridians after they pass away thereby eroding their constitutional right to freely devise their assets. The issue is of great public importance to the people of our state, with its high population of elderly citizens, as well as the trust and estate bar."

So what happens now? The Reno family waits. And the rest of us get another lesson in why one's estate plan must be precisely worded and cover all possible scenarios... whether you're a regular citizen or a former U.S. Attorney General.

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