In a shareholder and breach of fiduciary duty dispute arising from a probate case involving a closely held corporation with two shareholders, the Illinois Third District Court of Appeal has ruled that a shareholder agreement made by a decedent does not allow the remaining shareholder to execute the decedent’s will in bad faith. In re Estate of Talty, No. 3–06–0669 (Oct. 29, 2007).
Thomas Talty owned 50% of a closely held corporation (an auto dealership in Morris, Illinois), with his brother William Talty. They each also owned half of the land the dealership was built on, and had an interest in half of an adjoining parcel of land owned by a land trust. Thomas wrote a will in 2000 naming William as executor and naming Thomas’s wife, Helen Talty, as sole residual beneficiary of the estate.
The will gave William the right to purchase Thomas’s shares of the dealership from his estate, but required that the purchase price be determined by an independent appraiser appointed by the probate court. Similarly, it gave William the right to purchase Thomas’s half of the land, but at fair market value set by an independent appraiser approved by the probate court. Separately, in 2001, William and Thomas made a corporate agreement allowing their company to buy the shares of any deceased shareholder. It specified that the fair market value of the shares should be determined by an accountant agreed on by the company and the decedent’s representative, or, if they couldn’t agree, appointed by the probate court.
After Thomas’s death in 2001, William, acting as executor, agreed with the company that Robert Gordon would be the accountant to value the stock. Gordon was already the corporation’s accountant, Thomas and Helen Talty’s personal accountant, and Thomas and William Talty’s cousin. A non-relative recommended by William’s lawyer appraised the land. In neither case was Helen or the probate court consulted. Both assessed their respective properties considerably less than what they were later revealed to be worth. The closing date for the sales was set for six days from the day Helen’s attorney received a letter notifying him; he filed an emergency motion with the probate court to stop the closing as soon as he read the letter. The probate court denied Helen’s motion and proceeded with the sales.
Four months later, Helen filed a petition to set those sales aside and remove William as executor. At that trial, the court found that Thomas had waived William’s clear conflict of interests, but William acted in bad faith and abused his discretion. Thus, the trial court removed William as executor, set aside the sales, appointed independent appraisers and awarded Helen attorney fees and other costs. The total of the balance of the sales, rents from the land, and fees and costs due to Helen totaled nearly $2 million.
William appealed on a variety of grounds, but the appellate court affirmed. In its analysis, the court noted that the stock agreement may well have superseded Thomas’s will, but it was irrelevant — William breached his fiduciary duty as executor when he failed to make complete disclosures to Helen. Because William admitted to not disclosing important information and their attorneys had minimal contact, the appeals court declined to overturn the trial court’s determination of bad faith.