Former U.S. Attorney General and Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno died on Nov. 7, 2016, but the squabble over her ranch in suburban Kendall lives on.
The Miami-Dade Circuit Court ruled Reno’s lifelong home should be gifted to Miami Dade College, but her niece Janet Meliha Reno is set to appeal, arguing the school has no right to inherit the house.
Reno’s will, drawn up in 2008, said that the University of Miami could have the home as long as it was maintained ”as-is”—a burden the university declined, deciding it was too costly.
Reno’s mother built the house from scratch in the 1940s, in what was then the Everglades. Reno inherited the house when her parents died, and spent the majority of her life there.
“A lot of politically and otherwise historic meetings were held there over the years,” said Alan Greer of Richman Greer in Miami, lead attorney for the Reno estate and a longtime friend of the former attorney general.
According to Greer, Reno wanted the house to be preserved as its one of the last natural hammocks left in Southwest Dade. As part of a hammock—an elevated clump of trees surrounded by wetlands—the area has its own ecosystem.
“It has to be dealt with as wild land that has a house on it,” said Greer. “There’s upkeep and taxes and all of that sort of thing that has to be paid in perpetuity.”
Though Reno never attended UM, she looked to it as a financially sound institution.
When UM said no, Greer presented Miami Dade College as a comparable institution. He submitted a cy-près doctrine, meaning “as near as possible,” which allows the court to edit the terms of a trust if a gift can’t be given exactly as it was intended.
“MDC has a similar hammock pieces of property halfway between the campus and the Reno ranch, so there’s a natural nexus there,” Greer said.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mindy S. Glazer agreed on Nov. 8, granting a final judgment in favor of the Janet Reno Revocable Trust, headed by Reno’s nephew James Hurchalla.
Read the court order:
Reno, who never married or had children of her own, made seven of her nieces and nephews residuary heirs to the property. Six of them agreed the property should go to MDC.
But Hung V. Nguyen of the Nguyen Law Firm in Coral Gables represents Reno’s niece and argued that the six other relatives have tried to rewrite the famed attorney’s trust agreement.
“While the case involves a big name, it really comes down to property rights,” Nguyen said. “It comes down to Janet Reno’s constitutional right to divide her property as she sees fit, and my client’s right to inherit this property.”
The house isn’t worth much, according to Nguyen, who said his client objects out of principle.
According to Nguyen, a cy-près doctrine should only be used if there are no back-up plans, but Reno’s niece argues there are.
“In this case, the trust has clear language that says the property shall be sold and the trustee is obligated to sell the property and distribute it to the nieces and nephews,” Ngyuen said.
Nguyen also pointed to testimony of former attorney Lewis Kanner, now deceased, who claimed that Reno knew UM wasn’t going to accept the gift.
For Greer, who met Reno in the 1970s while playing racquetball at former American Bar Association president Sandy D’Alemberte’s house, gifting her home to MDC seems like the closest thing to Reno’s original plan.
“It’s a case that I feel a great responsibility for, since Janet was an old, old friend and I want to make sure her wishes were carried out,” Greer said.
Reno’s niece has filed a notice of appeal, which will go to the Third District Court of Appeal.