MOUNT VERNON - Madison County Associate Judge Nelson Metz wandered into the middle of a family feud when he should have stuck with one side, Fifth District appellate judges ruled on Nov. 15.
They reversed his decision to create a corporate trust for twin granddaughters of the late Gilbert Rutman rather than let Rutman's niece, Meryl Manin, manage their money.
The judges found no grounds for the mother of the twins, Felicia Hilaski of California, to challenge Manin's authority as executor of Rutman's estate.
"There is no evidence of a conflict of interest," Justice James Donovan wrote.
"There is no evidence that the proposed trustees are unfit," he wrote.
"There is no evidence that the proposed trustees would not or could not perform their duties to serve the interest of the minors with the highest degree of loyalty, fidelity, and good faith and without self dealing," he wrote.
Presiding Justice Melissa Chapman and Justice Thomas Welch agreed.
Rutman signed a will in 1992, naming wife Valerie as executor and Manin as alternate.
Rutman died in 2008, having outlived Valerie and son Andrew Rutman.
Andrew, father of twins Nicole and Kaitlyn, had divorced Hilaski.
Gilbert Rutman left as heirs not only the twins but also son Michael Rutman of Florida.
Metz directed Manin to prepare an inventory for the estate, but Hilaski moved to compel distribution to each beneficiary.
Manin moved to create two identical irrevocable trusts for the twins under Florida law and distribute their shares to herself and Michael Rutman as trustees.
Metz ruled in Manin's favor and appointed a guardian ad litem for the twins.
The guardian ad litem reviewed the dispute and spurned both sides, recommending distribution to a local financial institution.
The guardian ad litem advised Metz that if he chose to distribute funds to Manin, he should subject the trusts to Illinois law rather than Florida law.
Metz vacated his order in Manin's favor and directed the guardian ad litem to formulate an order of direction to a corporate trustee in Madison County.
"Both sides argue that they are in the best position to look after and protect the interests of the minors; however, given the distrust and animosity between the two sides, the court would assert that it is in the best position to do so," Metz wrote.
He gave himself too much credit, according to the appellate court.
"The minors did not present any witnesses or other evidence to show that the executor breached a fiduciary duty, mismanaged the estate, or violated any obligation to the heirs and legatees," Donovan wrote.
He wrote that Metz set forth no basis for his finding of distrust.
"It is unfortunate but not unusual for ex-spouses and their respective families to harbor feelings of ill will or mistrust following a divorce," Donovan wrote.
He found no evidence that personal hostility would interfere with the beneficial administration of the trusts.