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Ancient trust sparks probate litigation

Twin Cities residents with an affinity for history may take interest in the controversy now surrounding a will executed more than 100 years before the American colonies declared independence. An affluent businessman named William Payne drafted his will just eight days before his death 351 years ago.

The will left a 35-acre parcel of oceanfront real estate to be held in trust for the benefit of the local grammar school. Some area residents now claim that a recent probate settlement is an injustice against the wishes of the long gone benefactor.

Probate litigation appears likely to continue as opponents of the settlement raise concerns over fiduciary issues, including mismanagement of trust property. The property has long been under the administration of a private board of trustees, who have generated income by renting out cottages on the trust land.

The claims of mismanagement include accusations that some of the trustees rented cottages for their own use at a discount rate that lowered rental values for all the other cottages.

Under the new probate settlement, the cottages would be divided into condominium units and sold to current tenants. The original trustees would be replaced by a public board tasked with managing sale proceeds to enhance school funding.

Opponents of the settlement say its terms undervalue the land and subvert Payne's dying wish that the land itself be used to benefit the town's public schools. Supporters claim that the new public board of trustees will enhance local oversight and increase revenues for the schools.

Whatever the benefits may be from the new trust established by the probate court, the settlement order raises concerns about the ability of individuals to have confidence that their wishes will be carried out in accordance with the conditions of a trust. The ultimate fate of William Payne's venerable trust may well influence the shape of tomorrow's probate litigation.

Source: Pioneer Press, "351-year-old will sparks bitter dispute in Mass.," Rodrique Ngowi, Feb. 24, 2012

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