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Cooper v. Cooper

Supreme Court of Alabama

November 16, 2018

Randolph Clay Cooper
v.
Garland Terrance Cooper and Rebecca Cooper Bonner Randolph Clay Cooper
v.
Garland Terrance Cooper and Rebecca Cooper Bonner

          Appeal from Baldwin Circuit Court (CV-15-900107) (CV-15-900307)

          MAIN, JUSTICE.

         In these consolidated appeals, Randolph Clay Cooper ("Clay") appeals from two summary judgments entered in favor of his siblings, Garland Terrance Cooper ("Terry") and Rebecca Cooper Bonner ("Becky"). Case no. 1170270 concerns a petition for letters of administration for the estate of Carol Evans Cooper ("Mrs. Cooper"), who is the mother of Clay, Terry, and Becky. Case no. 1170271 involves Clay's petition to distribute any assets remaining in a trust created by the will of Nolan P. Cooper ("Mr. Cooper"), who was Mrs. Cooper's husband and is the father of Clay, Terry, and Becky.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Mr. Cooper died in January 2002. Mr. Cooper's will directed that an amount be put into a trust equal to the amount that is free of federal estate tax (that amount was $1, 000, 000 in 2002) for the benefit of his wife, Mrs. Cooper. Based on documents attached to the summary-judgment motions in the present cases, it appears that the testamentary trust either was or should have been funded with real property, including a "farm" valued at $952, 000 and other real property valued at $47, 900. Mr. Cooper's other assets passed directly to Mrs. Cooper. The will appointed Becky as the trustee of the trust. The trustee was instructed to "distribute the net income and principal" of the trust for the benefit of Mrs. Cooper. The trustee was instructed to distribute the entire net income to Mrs. Cooper, and, concerning the principal, the trustee was to "pay or apply such amount or amounts of principal (even to the extent of all the same) to or for the use of the beneficiary as such trustee may deem necessary, proper or desirable, in the absolute discretion of such trustee, for the medical of dental expenses, drugs, nursing or hospital expenses, other support and maintenance in reasonable comfort, or for any financial burden or emergency of the beneficiary." Upon Mrs. Cooper's death, the trust was to terminate and any assets remaining in the trust were to be divided and distributed equally among Clay, Terry, and Becky.

         In September 2008, Mrs. Cooper created a revocable living trust. It appears that the $952, 000 farm was deeded to Mrs. Cooper's trust around the same time that trust was created. Mrs. Cooper was the trustee of her trust, and Becky was the first successor trustee. At Mrs. Cooper's death, the trust estate was to be distributed to Becky and Terry. Clay was not included in the distribution. Mrs. Cooper died in April 2012. A copy of what was purported to be Mrs. Cooper's will was attached to the summary-judgment motions. That will placed the entire residue of Mrs. Cooper's estate in her trust.

         In 2012, in a lawsuit that is completely separate from the current litigation, Clay sued Becky, "individually and (i) as trustee of Nolan P. Cooper testamentary trust, (ii) trustee of the Carol Evans Cooper revocable living trust, (iii) administratrix of the will and/or estate of Nolan P. Cooper, and (iv) administratrix of the will and/or estate of Carol Evans Cooper"; David Bonner, who is Becky's husband; Terry; and Diane Porter, who is an attorney and accountant. Clay's complaint alleged, among other things, that, at Becky's direction, Mrs. Cooper reopened Mr. Cooper's estate and wrongfully transferred property, including property that should have been in Mr. Cooper's trust, to Mrs. Cooper and/or Mrs. Cooper's trust. The 2012 lawsuit sought, among other things, a full accounting of all assets "held by [Mr. Cooper's] trust or rightfully belonging to [that trust], including those which already have been dissipated, transferred, or sold." Also, the lawsuit sought a judgment "requiring that one-third of the assets which should have funded [Mr. Cooper's trust], but which were instead diverted to the Carol Cooper Revocable Trust(s), and thereafter to Becky and [Becky's husband], be distributed to [Clay] (and likewise to Terry)." Further, the lawsuit sought a judgment "ordering the partition and sale, or alternatively the equitable distribution of [Mr. Cooper's trust] assets, in accordance with the Nolan Cooper will and [Mr. Cooper's trust]." In November 2013, the circuit court entered a summary judgment in favor of the defendants without stating its reasons for doing so. That summary judgment was unanimously affirmed, without an opinion, by the Court of Civil Appeals, Cooper v. Bonner (No. 2130323, Sept. 12, 2014), 190 So.3d 60 (Ala. Civ. App. 2014) (table), and the certificate of judgment was issued on October 1, 2014.

         The petition for letters of administration for Mrs. Cooper's estate was filed in the Baldwin Probate Court on October 2, 2014, by Harry D'Olive, Jr., who is an attorney.[1]The probate court granted the letters of administration to D'Olive on October 21, 2014. In November 2014, Becky and Terry moved the probate court to set aside its order granting the letters of administration. An inventory of the estate filed by D'Olive in January 2015 stated that Mrs. Cooper's estate did not include any real property or personal property. In January 2015, Clay petitioned the circuit court to remove the administration of the estate to the circuit court, and the circuit court did so.

         In March 2015, a petition to distribute any remaining trust assets in Mr. Cooper's trust was filed in the circuit court. The petition sought termination of the testamentary trust pursuant to the terms of Mr. Cooper's will and distribution of the corpus of the testamentary trust, "including the appreciated value of any assets which this court determines should have been included as assets of the testamentary trust," to Clay, Terry, and Becky, the beneficiaries of the trust. The petition also sought a complete accounting of the trust since the day it was funded.

         In April 2015, Becky and Terry moved the circuit court to consolidate the administration of Mrs. Cooper's estate and the petition to distribute any assets remaining in Mr. Cooper's trust, and they moved the court to transfer both cases to Judge J.W. Bishop, the circuit judge who had presided over the 2012 litigation. Also, Becky and Terry filed a "motion to dismiss cases and/or motion for summary judgment" in both cases. In that motion, Becky and Terry argued that "Clay should be estopped from pursuing his most recent frivolous two lawsuits where the issues have been previously decided in earlier litigation between the same parties involving the same two decedents' estates."

         In June 2015, in the case concerning the administration of Mrs. Cooper's estate, Judge Joseph Norton denied the motion to consolidate and the motion to dismiss the case. Also, in the same month, in the case concerning the distribution of the assets of Mr. Cooper's testamentary trust, Judge Langford Floyd ruled that the motion to consolidate was moot and that the "motion to dismiss, or in the alternative summary judgment filed by [Terry] and [Becky] is hereby moot, pending distribution."

         On March 1, 2016, in both cases, Becky and Terry moved the circuit court to order mediation. On March 3, 2016, in the case concerning the distribution of the assets of Mr. Cooper's testamentary trust, Judge Floyd referred the case to mediation. On March 8, 2016, Judge Norton referred the estate-administration case to mediation. On April 26, 2016, Judge Floyd issued an order stating that the parties do not wish to mediate, and he withdrew his earlier mediation order. On May 18, 2016, Judge Norton modified his mediation order and stated that "any in-court proceedings as to the dispute in mediation shall be stayed as to the parties in mediation for a period of 60 days from the date of this order."

         On July 25, 2016, in the case concerning the distribution of the testamentary-trust assets, Clay, acting pro se, filed a "motion for summary judgment and/or declaratory judgment." In that motion, Clay argued that (1) "as a matter of law the legitimate corpus of the Nolan P. Cooper testamentary trust is due to be distributed and the trust terminated," (2) that "as a matter of law the trustee has a duty of loyalty to the trust, and to protect trust assets, declaratory judgment is appropriate where the trustee has not fulfilled this duty," (3) that "removal of testamentary trustee is appropriate to protect trust assets, to account for trust assets, to equitably distribute trust assets, and to terminate the testamentary trust," and (4) that he is entitled to attorney fees.

         On September 9, 2016, Judge Floyd denied Clay's summary-judgment motion. On that same day, Judge Floyd transferred the case concerning the distribution ...


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