last will, trusts and estates, contract

A Delaware Court of Chancery judge this week ruled that a decades-old divorce settlement did not block Samuel F. duPont from leaving the money from a duPont family trust to his children from a second marriage, in a messy dispute involving the descendants of one of Delaware’s most prominent and wealthy families.

The ruling, from Master Patricia W. Griffin, was only the second in Delaware to directly address an obscure issue of probate law. And it came as a stinging defeat for the three children of duPont’s first marriage, who argued through their Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell attorneys, that the 1962 agreement between their parents had designated them as the beneficiaries of the trust duPont’s father, Ernest duPont, had established for him in 1936.

Samuel duPont, who remarried on the same day as his divorce, later changed his mind and left the trust to his two adopted children from his second marriage to Joanne Smith Jeffries.

The Delaware News Journal first reported the outcome of the case on Thursday.

According to court papers, Ernest duPont created the trust to provide for Samuel duPont until he turned 21, at which point it would pay any income the trust made to Samuel duPont for the rest of his life. The trust agreement provided that, when Samuel duPont died, the trust would continue to pay out to the person of his choosing. Twenty-one years after his death, it would be dissolved, and the rest of the money would go to whomever Samuel designated in his will.

In 2016, trustees Martin Heckscher and Edward D.E. Rollins III petitioned the Chancery Court for guidance on how to distribute principal and income from the trust in the intrafamily feud in August 2015.  Jennifer D. Beck, the granddaughter of Samuel duPont and Jeffries, filed an answer to the suit, asserting that the trust should be distributed according to Samuel’s will.

The three children from Samuel duPont’s first marriage—Pierre, John and Catherine—argued that the matter had already been settled by the divorce proceedings in 1962, and the doctrine of res judicata barred Beck from relitigating the case 54 years later.

According to Griffin’s opinion, Samuel duPont himself anticipated the controversy in the mid-1990s, when he sought an opinion from Delaware attorney Henry Herndon as to whether the settlement agreement applied. Herndon, who spent decades with the Wilmington law firm Morris James, told duPont that the settlement was invalid and unenforceable against the trust, but noted that there was no controlling Delaware precedent to decide the matter.

Griffin said the definitive answer came in 2016, when then-Master Abigail M. LeGrow ruled on an issue of first impression that contracts exercising a testamentary power of appointment are, for the most part, invalid in Delaware.

Under that “seminal” case, known as Tigani, Griffin said duPont could only render a decision with regard to the trust in his will, per his father’s wishes. At the time duPont entered the settlement agreement in 1962, he lacked property interest in the trust and had no rights to bargain away during his lifetime.

“Therefore, contracting away that power defeats the donor’s intent by eliminating the donee’s ability to change the appointment at any time prior to his death. And, in Delaware, the donor’s intent controls,” she wrote in a 40-page opinion.

Beck was represented by Gregory J. Weinig, Ryan P. Newell, Scott E. Swenson and Daniel R. Stanek of Connolly Gallagher.

The other duPont children, Thomas, John and Catherine, were represented by Todd A. Flubacher and Matthew R. Clark of Morris Nichols.

The case was captioned In re The Trust FBO Samuel Francis duPont.