In Mitchell v. Reynolds, (Del. Ch., Jan. 7, 2009), read opinion here, the Delaware Chancery Court explains in a 40-page decision the contours and the factually subtle aspects of the analysis employed to determine the existence of a fiduciary relationship, as well as the legal aspects of the duties and rights of both trust beneficiaries and the creators of the trust–who all happen to be family members in this case.
The most far-reaching and widely applicable aspects of this case involve a description of relationships that have commonly been held to be "fiduciary relationships" and, more importantly, what criteria the court will apply to determine under what circumstances "any" particular relationship might trigger fiduciary duties. See generally footnotes 79 to 87.
Here is the money quote from the court’s opinion that business litigators can use to evaluate less typical relationships in order to determine if the court might regard one of the parties as a fiduciary:
Even outside a formally recognized fiduciary relationship, a relationship predicated on a particular confidence or reliance may give rise to fiduciary obligations. Eschewing a formalistic approach, Delaware courts have declined to establish set bounds for such relationships, in favor of a pragmatic, fact-driven inquiry. Typically, though, a confidential relationship is said to exist where "circumstances make it certain the parties do not deal on equal terms but on one side there is an overmastering influence or on the other weakness, dependence or trust, justifiably reposed." (footnotes omitted, but see footnotes 84 and 85).
Factors to be considered in finding a fiduciary relationship are helpful to have handy as there are not an abundance of cases that describe those factors as clearly as this case does, regarding "less well-established contexts."
Now that I have highlighted what I think are the most important and far-reaching nuggets of this opinion, I’ll cover a few case-specific parts of the case. The key claims in the case were made by a son who thought that his sister had procured from their mother, by fraud and undue influence, inter vivos gifts from a trust of which the children were beneficiaries. The gems I picked out are as follows:
- Citing the Parable of the Prodigal Son at page 18, the court found that the mother forgave the daughter for her wasteful transgressions, even if it might have been unfair to the son.
- Undue influence must be established by the challenger of an inter vivos transfer, and the elements of undue influence are discussed at great length at footnotes 65 to 71.
- An exception to that burden of proof is when the court finds a fiduciary relationship to exist. See footnotes 77 and 78.
- The court examines the criteria for demonstrating testamentary capacity and the capacity for a settlor of a trust.
- The court found that there was some undue influence exerted by the daughter over the mother and the remedies imposed are described at page 30 of the slip opinion.
- Delaware has not decisively recognized a claim for "tortious interference with inheritance" as some other states have. See footnote 111.
This case is an example of the non-corporate types of matters that the Chancery Court handles, but that still deal with fiduciary duties and the court’s exercise of its equitable powers to customize remedies.