A person who is an Executor, Administrator, Trustee, or who has a Power of Attorney is a fiduciary. A fiduciary must act in the best interest of the beneficiaries and show that each of his actions was in the beneficiaries’ best interest. When an action benefits the fiduciary in any way, there is a presumption of unfairness, and the fiduciary may be liable.
David Johnson, an attorney who writes on fiduciary litigation, has an article that addresses the case of In re Estate of Klutts, 02-18-00356-CV, (Tex. App.—Fort Worth December 19, 2019, no pet. history). In Klutts, a son who had a power of attorney helped his mother prepare a new will which benefited the son. When the mother died, he attempted to probate the new will. However, his siblings contested the will. The son asked the court to dismiss the contest because his siblings had no evidence that he unduly influenced his mother. The trial court agreed with the son and rejected the will contest. On appeal, the appeals court reversed.
The appeals court held that because he had a power of attorney, the son had to overcome the presumption of undue influence. Thus, the burden was not on the siblings to prove undue influence but on the son to disprove it.
Texas courts recognize that a person with a power of attorney owes the principal (the person who gave the power of attorney) a fiduciary duty. The holder of the power of attorney owes her principal a high duty of good faith, fair dealing, honest performance, and strict accountability. When the fiduciary receives an alleged gift from the principal, the fiduciary has an extremely high burden to show that the gift was in the best interest of the principal. The courts have observed that the fiduciary relationship cast upon the profiting fiduciary the burden of showing the fairness of the transactions. By accepting both the role of fiduciary and gifts from the principal, the agent consents to have her conduct measured by a higher standard of loyalty.In one case, the fiduciary never acted under her power of attorney. Therefore, she claimed, she did not have to meet the high burden of a fiduciary to prove that the gifts she received from the principal were in the best interest of the principal. The court rejected these arguments. The court found that the holder of the power of attorney owed the principal a fiduciary duty based solely on the power of attorney whether or not it was ever exercised. This finding placed the burden on the holder to prove the transfer of the principal’s property to her was fair and in the best interest of the principal.
The violation of the duty that a holder of a power of attorney owes to the principal can result in a felony conviction. In one case, the facts were as follows: “Grace added Tyler as a signatory on her bank accounts, and executed a durable power of attorney naming Tyler as her “agent (attorney-in-fact).” The power of attorney gave Tyler power over all of Grace’s assets.” Tyler later misapplied the funds under her control by using some for her personal debts.
The criminal law in question, §32.45 of the Texas Penal Code says: “A person commits an offense if he intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly misapplies property he holds as a fiduciary or property of a financial institution in a manner that involves substantial risk of loss to the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property is held.” Tyler claimed that she had no formal trustee relationship with Grace, and therefore a fiduciary relationship “may not have” existed. In ruling that the existence of the power of attorney alone created the fiduciary relationship, the court upheld her conviction.
Update: In a 2018 case, an appeals court upheld a decision that the person with a power of attorney breached his fiduciary duty when he withdrew funds from a bank account and put the funds in his own account. The court ruled that he converted the funds and had to return them. Conversion is the wrongful exercise of dominion and control over another’s property in denial of or inconsistent with one’s rights. “From the evidence, the trial court could have reasonably concluded that when (POA) withdrew the money from the joint account, (POA) was not acting in (principal’s) interests but was using the power of attorney to wrongfully exercise dominion and control over the money to the exclusion of, or inconsistent with, (the owner’s) rights.” No. 02-17-00138-CV. In 2019, the courts held that a person with a power of attorney who had the bank issue him a certified check that he put in his own account, breached his fiduciary duty. This was true even though the person from whom he had the power of attorney signed the check. 02-17-00138-CV.
A power of attorney in Texas creates a fiduciary duty between the person who holds the power (agent) and the person who gives it (principal.) The agent owes his principal a high duty of good faith, fair dealing, honest performance, and strict accountability. A 2015 case out of Fort Worth dealt with the issue of breaching a fiduciary duty in Texas.
A man (agent) had his aunt (principal) give him a power of attorney. About a year before the aunt died, the nephew executed deeds to the aunt’s real estate to himself and his son. After the aunt died, a probate was filed. When the beneficiaries of the aunt found out about the deeds, they were understandably upset.
Family Settlement Agreement
Apparently, most of the beneficiaries did not have the money to sue the agent so they entered into a family settlement agreementto give one of the beneficiaries the right to sue the agent for breaching a fiduciary duty in Texas. A suit was filed and (more…)
In what I consider a strange holding, the Texas Supreme Court ruledin 2015 that when a Texas bank gives money to the wrong person, the bank may not be liable.
The case dealt with a joint account with right of survivorship. A husband and wife opened the account. The account was a joint account with right of survivorship meaning that when one died, the survivor owned the account. The account also had a pay on death clause that paid themoney to two people equally when the last of husband or wife died. When the bank heard that the husband died, they issued a check to the two pay on death beneficiaries instead of leaving the money in the account under the wife’s name. One of the pay on death beneficiaries (first) kept the money. The other one (second) put the money into an account for the wife. He also had a power of attorney for wife and demanded that the bank reimburse the wife for the money that had gone to the first one. The bank admitted the mistake and attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the money back from the first one. After the wife died, the executor of her estate (second) filed suit against the bank.
A jury found that the bank breached its duty to wife but found that the wife suffered no damages. The trial court entered a judgment against the bank for the full amount given to the first one, called judgment notwithstanding the verdict, JNOV. The court of appeals upheld the judge’s JNOV. However, when the case went to the supreme court, they overturned it. The supreme court ruled that the estate suffered no damage because the one half of the original account would have gone to the first one if no changes had been made! This doesn’t address the issue of what would happen if the wife had all the money and decided to spend it or to put it into another account (as she had done after the funds were disbursed.) I don’t understand how the bank is not liable for giving depositor’s money away. There was no discussion of any constraint on the wife to use that money, to give it to someone else or to just go to Las Vegas and blow it. It was wife’s money! How could giving it to someone else not cause damages!
The only way to justify this case is that the two pay on death beneficiaries were not relatives of the husband and wife and that if the bank had paid the money back to wife, it would have ended up in the account opened by the second beneficiary after the fact and he would get all of the money. There is no discussion of these issues or what the wife’s wishes were. There is a brief mention of a guardian for wife but not discussion of what wife wanted done with the money.
This post concerns fiduciary duties in Texas. The case that is discussed deals with an Executor but could also apply to a trustee or any other fiduciary in Texas. A court of appeals ruled in 2014 that a Texas Executor commits breach of trust not only where he violates a duty in bad faith, or intentionally although in good faith, or negligently but also where he violates a duty because of a mistake. Executor Violates Duty because of a Mistake even if he relied on his attorney for advise. No. 02-14-00170-CV.
Executor Violates Duty because of a Mistake
A man died. He had two sons. First son was appointed executor under the man’s will. Second son was, for some reason, not (more…)