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Family fight: Seven suits in three different courts

Peter Vieth//September 25, 2014

Family fight: Seven suits in three different courts

Peter Vieth//September 25, 2014

lSiblings who traded accusations over use of their mother’s money have spent thousands on legal fees, and the legal wrangling is still not over.

A son is fighting with two sisters, both sides claiming the other breached duties under a trust set up to control the family money. The dispute has fostered seven lawsuits in three localities.

The family conflict arose in the wake of the 2007 death of Richmond homebuilder William C. Trimmer Sr. His widow, Grace Trimmer, moved to an assisted living facility soon afterwards.

Trimmer’s son, Chris Trimmer, was named executor of his father’s estate. He also held a power of attorney for his mother and controlled a family trust.

Trimmer was a Class A licensed contractor and was renovating his parents’ home to put it on the market, according to his lawyer, Thomas G. Haskins of Richmond.

The sisters, Brenda Savage and Carolyn Trimmer, took their brother to court claiming he was spending his parents’ money without following the rules and without accounting for the use of the money.

Trimmer responded that he was working solely for his mother, so he had not bothered to keep the paperwork for all the suppliers and subcontractors.

Richmond Circuit Judge Designate Theodore J. Markow agreed with the sisters, removing Chris as a trustee last year. When the brother later sued to remove the sisters as trustees, they ultimately agreed to step aside to allow appointment of an independent attorney.

“He just treated this money as his own, which is certainly a contradiction of the concept of a trustee,” Markow said at a hearing.

Markow’s ruling was just one stop along a troubled road, however.

The lawsuit that launched the litigation marathon was filed by the sisters in 2010. A revived version of that suit remains pending in Henrico County Circuit Court.

The sisters, both of whom work for Richmond area nonprofits, claim Chris misappropriated and embezzled money from his mother by signing her name to personal checks without her knowledge or consent. They accused Chris of living rent-free in his mother’s West End Richmond home and improperly arranging for her to give him her power of attorney.

Chris responded with a lawsuit for defamation. Both sisters had publicly labeled him a thief, Haskins said.

The sisters hired attorney Stephen L. Dalton of Richmond to defend them. Dalton won a defense verdict in favor of the sisters in a 2012 jury trial.

Chris filed a second defamation suit in Hanover County against just one of the sisters. Dalton again defended, and that case was settled for an undisclosed amount last year.

With three lawsuits in play, the warring family members sought to resolve their differences in February 2012, according to Haskins. Chris and the sisters, with their lawyers, attempted mediation with retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis W. Dohnal.

“It was an utter failure,” Haskins said of the mediation effort.

The sisters took their grievances to the Richmond courts in 2012, with a petition in circuit court to remove Chris as trustee under the mother’s trust and an eviction case in general district court. Both actions were successful.

The mother’s trust was granted possession of the West End home in November 2012.

Markow heard evidence in July 2013 and concluded Chris had committed “a serious breach of trust” in his handling of his mother’s money and property. Markow removed him as trustee for his mother.

Chris then turned the tables, suing in Henrico County to remove his sisters as trustees. He also asked a Henrico judge to appoint a conservator and to restore trust money spent on the sisters’ legal bills in defending the defamation lawsuits.

A guardian ad litem recommended an independent attorney serve as a conservator.

The sisters opposed giving up their roles as trustees, but dropped their resistance on the courthouse steps. The sisters agreed to step aside as trustees on July 1 of this year as Judge Catherine C. Hammond heard the case in Henrico Circuit Court. The judge appointed Richmond lawyer Paul G. Izzo as conservator.

Hammond then considered attorney’s fee issues.

The sisters had paid Dalton, their lawyer in the defamation cases, from the mother’s trust account. Chris argued it was improper for the sisters to use the trust money to defend lawsuits against them personally.

The sisters responded that their mother and her attorney expressly advised them to use the trust money for their legal defense.

In a July 8 letter opinion in Trimmer v. Savage (VLW 014-8-083), Hammond ruled the sisters would have to repay the trust money spent on their legal bills.

Hammond emphasized the legal duty owed by a trustee to all beneficiaries of the trust.

“The Trustees owned a particular duty to their brother, because all three children have an interest in any Trust property that remains after their mother’s death,” Hammond wrote.

“The payments to Mr. Dalton appear to infringe on the remainder interests, and to show favoritism,” the judge said.

Hammond also approved payment of $33,363 in legal fees to Haskins, Chris’ lawyer in the case. The money was to be paid from the mother’s estate, sharing the expense among all three of Grace Trimmer’s children.

Still pending in the multi-faceted family feud is the sisters’ seminal lawsuit claiming misappropriation and embezzlement by Chris Trimmer. The sisters reportedly nonsuited the original action two weeks before a scheduled trial in October 2012. It was later refiled.

In April of this year, Chris asked that the suit be dismissed for lack of activity. The motion is pending, Haskins said.

If that suit goes forward, the parties face a four-day trial in 2015, Haskins said.

Some resolution could come earlier. In two separate actions, a court-appointed assistant commissioner of accounts is auditing the use of the trust money by all of Grace Trimmer’s children.

Grace Trimmer, the mother, reportedly is unable to appreciate what the children are doing.

“That’s probably a good thing,” Haskins said.

“It is absolutely heartbreaking what happened to Grace Trimmer and to her daughters as a result of this case, but it’s really Chris Trimmer who has driven this,” said Amanda J. Foster of Richmond, one of the lawyers representing the daughters.

“He used Mrs. Trimmer’s funds and assets for his own personal benefit, and for the benefit of his corporation….,” Foster wrote in a court pleading.

Regardless of where the blame falls, “The trustees have spent way too much money fighting among each other,” Haskins said.

“It’s just a very sad state of affairs and pretty unbelievable that families would go to this extent over an extended period of time to

VLW 014-8-083

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