The construction of a testamentary document presents a question of law, which the appellate court reviews de novo. The same principles of construction which are applicable to wills and testamentary trusts also apply to inter vivos trusts. The appellate court's obligation is to discern and uphold the settlor's intent. The appellate court determines the intent from the language of the document itself, considered in light of the circumstances surrounding the settlor at the time the document was executed. If there is no ambiguity in the language of the document, there is no need to look further to determine the testator's actual intent.
On July 12, 1984, John J. McGuire executed a revocable trust (the Trust) for the benefit of himself, his wife, Mary, and their four daughters, Therese, Patricia, Maureen and Megan. At his death in 1987, three new trusts were created by operation of Articles V and VI of the revocable trust: the John J. McGuire Marital Trust, the John J. McGuire Marital Trust No. 2 (the Marital Trusts) and the Family Trust. The current Trustees are James McGuire (John's brother), Mary McGuire, J.P. Cullen, and Alfred Diotte. When Mary sought to transfer assets in order to minimize the impact of federal estate taxes, Theres, the estranged eldest daughter, refused to sign a release because she was concerned that she might not receive a gift equal to those given to her sisters. Instead, Therese requested additional information from the Trustees regarding the amount and management of the Trust assets, including whether Mary had already made gifts to other family members. She also asked for copies of the accountings the Trustees provided to her mother. The Trustees denied much of Therese's request, but did provide her with an accounting of the Trust administration for the years 1993-99. The Trustees then petitioned the trial court for a finding that Article X of the revocable trust was valid, that the Trustees had fulfilled their obligations under Article X, and that they were released from liability to any beneficiary for the administration of Trust property for the period of January 1, 1993, through December 31, 1999. Further, with respect to future accounts, the Trustees asked to be discharged of any liability to the beneficiaries, present or contingent, if no current or permissive income beneficiary submitted an objection to the accountings within six months of presentation. Therese opposed the petition, arguing that Article X was ambiguous and asking that the court appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of her minor children. She also requested a protective order prohibiting the Trustees from making distributions of the Trust assets until the guardian ad litem had completed an investigation of the administration of the Trust. The trial court granted the Trustees' petition and denied Therese's motions. Thereafter, Therese appealed.
Was Article X of the revocable trust ambiguous and therefore, invalid?
The Court held that Article X of the revocable trust was clear and provided that the wife, Mary, as a trustee and an income beneficiary, had sole authority to approve or object to the accounts during her lifetime, which was not inconsistent with other trust provisions. According to the Court, The decision to appoint a guardian ad litem under Wis. Stat. § 701.15(2) (2001-2002) was discretionary. Hence, the trial court did not err in refusing to appoint a guardian, as the contingent beneficiary represented the same interest as her children.