In Special Needs News

A South Carolina appeals court rules that the ex-husband of a special needs trust beneficiary was not prejudiced when, in the middle of a trial of his action to remove the trustees, the probate court added the beneficiary as a party.  In Re: The Abbie Dorn Special Needs Trust (S.C. App. Ct., No. 2015-000659, Aug. 3, 2016).

Daniel and Abbie Dorn were married in 2002.  Abbie was incapacitated during the birth of triplets in 2006 and subsequently settled a medical malpractice action against the hospital for $6.73 million, which was placed into a special needs trust through a combination of a lump-sum payment and a $4.3 million annuity.  Abbie’s parents, Paul and Susan Cohen, were named as trustees of the trust and they were required to obtain court approval of all attorney fees incurred on Abbie’s behalf.  

In 2008, Daniel and Abbie began divorce proceedings.  In 2010, Daniel, acting on behalf of the couple’s children, filed an action to remove the Cohens as trustees and to prevent them from spending further trust funds litigating the visitation provisions of the divorce settlement.  The Cohens then filed a petition seeking court affirmation of nearly $500,000 in legal fees paid by the trust and to reform the trust to allow them to pay legal fees without permission.  The actions were combined for trial and a guardian ad litem (GAL) and attorney were appointed for Abbie.  After Daniel finished presenting evidence in his portion of the trial, he filed a motion to prevent Abbie’s GAL and attorney from calling their own witnesses because he had not named Abbie as a party to the litigation.  The probate court rejected his motion and eventually officially added Abbie as a party.

The Court of Appeals of South Carolina upholds the trial court’s decision.  The court finds that “the probate court’s order in this case did not affect Dorn’s substantial right to choose his own defendant . . . the probate court’s order in this case neither substituted Abbie for the Cohens nor deprived Dorn of the ability to maintain his petition to remove the Cohens . . . Rather, the probate court’s order had the effect of an order granting a motion to intervene because it allowed for Abbie’s full participation as a party in the action seeking to remove the trustees of the trust created for her benefit.”

To read the full text of the court’s opinion, go to: http://www.judicial.state.sc.us/opinions/HTMLFiles/COA/5432.pdf

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