Credibility Determinations By A Trial Court In Cases Involving Claims of Abuse Of A Power Of Attorney Are Binding On Appeal

Matter of Mildred B. Trocolor involved a dispute between two of the decedent’s adult children who were co-executors of the decedent’s estate. The decedent’s daughter, Daryl, brought the lawsuit, alleging that, while the decedent, Mildred B. Trocolor, was alive, the defendants, her brother Robert and his wife, Genevieve, stole substantial sums of money from the decedent by misappropriating the proceeds of three reverse mortgages on Mildred’s house. The reverse mortgages were secured by Robert, who had Mildred’s power of attorney and handled her finances while she was alive. In their counterclaim, defendants alleged that Daryl misappropriated money from Mildred.

At trial, Daryl produced a detailed accounting of Mildred’s funds, which defendants did not contest except in minor respects. Daryl also testified that her mother had lent her relatively modest sums of money that Daryl either repaid or that Mildred forgave in a gift letter that the judge found to be authentic.

In contrast, Robert testified at trial that the three reverse mortgages were placed on Mildred’s house because she was running out of money to support herself. Yet he also admitted taking at least $240,000 from the proceeds of those mortgages to pay for improvements to his own home and his children’s college tuition. Robert claimed that Mildred knew about, and approved of, those expenditures, and even produced a gift letter allegedly signed by his mother. Robert also admitted that he had “destroyed” most of his mother’s financial records concerning the reverse mortgages and the amounts he took from her estate.

After a three-day, non-jury trial, the trial judge found Daryl to be a completely credible, or believable, witness and concluded that she had not misappropriated any money. Further, the trial judge found that Robert was a completely incredible, or unbelievable, witness. The court found that the mother’s alleged signature on Robert’s gift letter was a forgery. As a result, the court ordered Robert to repay $260,000, which included the approximately $240,000 that he stole from his mother, plus interest, and $1,000 in punitive damages. Because Robert used about $75,000 of his deceased mother’s money to improve his own home, the court imposed a constructive trust to that extent on Robert’s home. The court also awarded attorneys fees to Daryl in the amount of $89,000, and, as an equitable remedy, barred Robert from inheriting from the estate. The award of counsel fees was later reduced by the trial judge.

Robert appealed, asserting, among other claims, that the trial court erred in disinheriting him and in imposing a constructive trust on his home, alleging that “the remedies the judge imposed were ‘an abuse of discretion’ because his factual findings were incorrect.”

The appeals court affirmed, finding no support for defendants’ contention that the judge’s factual findings were incorrect. The appeals court held that the “trial judge had the opportunity, which we did not, to hear and see the witnesses testify and to determine their credibility.” The appeals court held that it was bound by credibility determinations made by the trial judge:

Our review of the trial judge’s decision is limited. We will not disturb the judge’s determination so long as his findings are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. … We owe particular deference to the judge’s credibility determinations. … However, we owe no deference to the judge’s legal conclusions… . (Emphasis Added; Citations Omitted)

The case is annexed here – In the Matter of the Estate of Mildred B. Trocolor