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Rabun v. Rabun

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 21, 2017


          DOYLE, C. J., MILLER, P. J., and REESE, J.

          Reese, Judge.

         Mildred Rabun (hereinafter "the widow") appeals from an order of summary judgment in favor of her stepson, Timothy Rabun ("the executor"), in the widow's action to impose a constructive trust on assets transferred to the executor from Elwood Rabun, Sr. ("the decedent") during the decedent's lifetime. The widow also seeks review of that portion of the trial court's order that awarded certain properties in her possession to the executor. For the reasons set forth, infra, we affirm the grant of summary judgment as to the trial court's refusal to impose a constructive trust, but reverse that portion of the order directing the return of certain personal property to the executor.[1]

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the widow, as the nonmoving party, [2] the evidence shows that the decedent, the widow's husband of 17 years, died testate on April 20, 2014, after a battle with lung cancer that had lasted several years. The will which the decedent had executed in November 2012 granted a life estate in the marital residence to the widow, with the remainder to go to the executor, and devised adjacent property to the executor's siblings.[3] The will left the remainder of the decedent's estate to the executor.

         Prior to the filing of the widow's complaint in the superior court, a probate court had awarded the widow as year's support[4] "all of the decedent's interest in the household furniture and furnishings, appliances, and all other personal property located at the marital residence." The probate court found that the widow was in poor health and was being cared for by her daughter (the decedent's stepdaughter) at the daughter's home and that, at the time the will was probated, it was questionable whether the widow would be able to return to the marital residence in which she had been devised a life estate.

         The decedent and the widow had maintained a joint checking account in which the executor claimed no interest; the account balance was approximately $41, 000 at the time of the decedent's death. In addition, the decedent's estate included three accounts with SunTrust Bank: (1) a joint checking account in the names of the decedent, the executor, and the widow (the "three-party account"); (2) a money market account in the names of the decedent and the executor (the "two-party account"); and (3) an individual money market account with a provision that the proceeds were payable on death to the executor (the "individual account").

         The estate also included a life insurance annuity worth approximately $88, 000, a $5, 000 life insurance policy, and a life insurance annuity worth approximately $50, 000. Each of these designated the executor as the sole beneficiary.

         In her complaint, the widow alleged that, after she and the decedent both became ill, the decedent rewrote his will and transferred substantial assets to the executor with the intent that the executor would provide and care for the widow after the decedent's death. The widow contended that, as a result, the executor held more than $200, 000 in cash and various accounts in a constructive trust for the benefit and use of the widow.

         The executor moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was the sole owner of the financial assets and that the insurance policies, annuity contracts, and bank deposit documents created no legal obligation for him to care for the widow as a matter of law. The executor also sought the return of various estate items in the widow's possession that the executor contended had neither been devised to the widow nor included in the year's support.

         The superior court granted summary judgment to the executor, finding that there had been no constructive trust imposed on any of the SunTrust accounts or life insurance policies and annuities. The court also directed the widow to return certain estate items, as requested in the executor's summary judgment motion.

A party is entitled to summary judgment if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. On appeal from the grant of summary judgment, [the reviewing court] construe[s] the evidence most favorably toward the nonmoving party, who is given the benefit of all reasonable doubts and possible inferences.[5]

         We will affirm the grant of summary judgment if it is right for any reason.[6] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the widow's specific claims of error.

         1. The widow argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the executor because factual disputes remained as to the existence of a constructive trust.

         "A constructive trust is a trust implied whenever the circumstances are such that the person holding legal title to property, either from fraud or otherwise, cannot enjoy the beneficial interest in the property without violating some established principle of equity."[7]

         The record on appeal includes the deposition of the widow's daughter, Janet Bennier. Bennier testified that, in 2010, after the widow suffered a second stroke and was in failing health, the decedent came to visit Bennier in West Virginia, where she was then living. According to Bennier, the decedent told her that the executor would take care of the widow because the executor lived closer to the widow than did Bennier or her children. The decedent added that he had taken "care of everything" and that the ...

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