In a suit for aid and guidance brought by SunTrust Bank as trustee, the
Supreme Court of Virginia in Steven Harbour, et al. v. SunTrust Bank, et al.,
2009 Va. LEXIS 101 (Va. Nov. 5, 2009) reversed the circuit court’s holding and
concluded that certain remainder interests in a trust vested at the date of the
The testator, Mrs. Johnson, executed an inter vivos trust for her benefit
during her lifetime, and upon her death, for the benefit of her husband, if he
survived her. Mrs. Johnson directed that following her husband's death any
remaining trust funds would be distributed in four equal shares to her three
siblings and one charity. Mrs. Johnson was survived by her husband and two
siblings, however, neither of the siblings survived Mrs. Johnson's husband.
At issue in the case was the meaning of Mrs. Johnson's direction that "[i]f
any of my brothers or sister shall fail to survive me, his or her share shall
lapse and such share shall be added to the trust fund for [the charity]." The
charity argued that the siblings' shares should be added to the charity's share
because the siblings failed to survive Mrs. Johnson's husband.
The descendants of Mrs. Johnson's siblings argued that, based upon the plain
language of the trust instrument, the siblings' shares vested upon the date of
Mrs. Johnson's death, and that there was no requirement for the siblings to be
alive at the date of distribution.
As trustee, SunTrust Bank filed a suit for aid and guidance regarding the
interpretation of the trust agreement and distribution of trust assets. The
circuit court held that the shares of the deceased siblings had lapsed, because
none of the siblings were alive at the time of the husband's death.
The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed on appeal. The court initially
reviewed the general rule of construction favoring the early vesting of
remainder estates, but ultimately held that it was unnecessary to apply such
rule because the trust document was unambiguous. Based on the plain language of
the trust agreement, the court found that the testator intended that the
remainder interests vest at the time of her death, and not at that of her
This opinion emphasizes the court's jurisprudence regarding the
interpretation of a trust document. Finding no ambiguity in the document, the
court applied the plain meaning of the language used in the trust document to
effectuate the testator's intent.