Wyoming Supreme Court hears Forbes family dispute

SHERIDAN — Waldo E. “Spike” Forbes has brought and appealed another case against members of the Forbes family to the Wyoming Supreme Court. The court heard oral arguments in the Forbes family’s latest case Wednesday. 

According to court documents, the Forbes family fortune comes from American businessman William Hathaway Forbes, who inherited his father’s Massachusetts trust and investment advisory firm, J.M. Forbes & Co. In the 1920s, William Hathaway Forbes established the Beckton Ranch Trust — a trust Spike Forbes’ attorney Mitchell Edwards called “not your typical trust” — to manage and hold property in Sheridan County on behalf of the family and its descendants, Spike Forbes’ brief said. 

Spike Forbes, along with his siblings William C. “Cam” Forbes, Julia Forbes and Edith Forbes, among 17 other members of the Forbes family, are beneficiaries of the trust’s 1,188 shares. Cam, Julia and Edith Forbes, as well as Spike Forbes’ nephew, Donald Bingham, are trustees of the Beckton Ranch Trust.

Disagreements among the siblings, however, soon resulted in personal — and legal — conflicts for the Forbes family. 

“There is tension between Spike Forbes and his siblings who are serving as trustees,” said Justin Daraie, an attorney representing three of the trustees, during oral arguments before the Wyoming Supreme Court Wednesday.   

According to his trial brief, Spike Forbes resigned as a Beckton Ranch Trust trustee in 2007, citing disagreements with his siblings. Soon after, the other Forbes siblings made a series of land and water transactions of which Spike did not approve. 

Spike Forbes sued in 2011, resulting in a case that itself reached the Wyoming Supreme Court in 2015. The court held trustees Cam Forbes and Julia Forbes breached their fiduciary duty of loyalty and engaged in self-dealing — or acting in their own best interest as a fiduciary — but did not warrant their removal as trustees. 

Spike Forbes sued again in 2019, after he tried to give his trust shares to other family members and a foundation. Trustees instituted a sealed-bid process to determine the values of the shares after Spike Forbes gave away his shares, court documents state, which found each share was worth about $6,000, far less than Spike Forbes’ estimation of over $21,000.

This case is now before the Wyoming Supreme Court. 

Because new Wyoming Supreme Court Justice John Fenn heard the case as a 4th Judicial District Court judge in 2020, he recused himself from the case this time. Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Bobbi Overfield heard the case in Fenn’s place. 

Edwards, Spike Forbes’ attorney, argued before the justices the trustees breached fiduciary duties again by misrepresenting the value of trust shares and engaging in self-dealing by facilitating a restrictive bidding appraisal process.

Edwards asserted the trustees’ accounting reports indicated to Spike Forbes each share in the Beckton Ranch Trust was worth $21,000. Allowing others to purchase a share for the trustees’ far slighter price of $6,000 would be self-dealing and a breach of fiduciary duty. 

“It is self-dealing, and it could cause harm,” Edwards said before the court. 

As a result, Edwards requested the court reverse and remand the district court’s decision in the case. 

Daraie, attorney for Julia Forbes, Edith Forbes and Bingham, argued trustees never misrepresented the value of shares to Spike Forbes. The trustees appraised the value of Beckton Ranch Trust shares through a sealed bidding process, through which the trustees learned what people were willing to pay for shares of the trust. This, Daraie argued, was a reasonable way to determine the value of each share of the trust. 

Daraie also argued there has been no evidence of actual harm suffered by Spike Forbes as a result of the trustees’ most recent actions. Without harm, Daraie said, there is no need for a legal remedy on appeal. 

Timothy Tarver, attorney for Cam Forbes, made three simple assertions in his argument before the court: The trustees were authorized to act as they did; the trustees acted reasonably; and the trust’s accounting was reasonable. 

The discrepancy between Forbes’ anticipated share value of over $21,000 per share and the actual value of $6,000 per share was the result of a misunderstanding on Spike Forbes’ part, Tarver said. The trustees sent out reports indicating the trust’s underlying assets — rather than any individual or collectible share — were worth $21,000. 

For these reasons, Daraie and Tarver asked the court to uphold the district court’s ruling. 

The court took the matter under advisement and will issue a written ruling in response to the parties’ arguments at a later date.