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In re Estate of Harless

Supreme Court of Montana

October 1, 2013

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF CATHERINE MARIE HARLESS, Deceased

Submitted on Briefs: September 4, 2013

District Court of the Fifth Judicial District, In and For the County of Beaverhead, Cause No. DP-11-5237 Honorable Loren Tucker, Presiding Judge

For Appellant Linda Hyde: Stephanie Gehres Kruer; Kruer Law Firm, P.C.; Sheridan, Montana

For Appellee Kelli Martin: J. Blaine "J.B." Anderson, Jr.; Attorney at Law; Dillon, Montana

OPINION

Patricia O. Cotter Justice

¶1 Catherine Harless, deceased, was the sister of Linda Hyde and the mother of Kelli Martin. Martin petitioned to be appointed personal representative to probate her mother's estate. Hyde opposed the petition, asserting Harless had executed a will in 2002 (hereinafter Will) naming Hyde as executrix. The Fifth Judicial District Court ruled that Harless had revoked the 2002 Will upon which Hyde was relying, and that Harless therefore died intestate and her daughter was entitled to be appointed personal representative. Hyde appeals. We reverse and remand.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶2 In May 2002, then-fifty-five-year-old Catherine Harless was preparing to depart on a season-long work experience aboard a fishing ship working in Alaskan waters. Prior to departure, she acquired a form "Last Will and Testament" which she completed in her handwriting on May 28, 2002. In this Will, she expressly devised $1.00 each to her two daughters (Kelli Martin and Heather Gordon) and $1.00 each to her two grandchildren. She also expressly declared that her daughters and grandchildren were "not allowed" to have anything else of her belongings or to be on any real property Harless owned.

¶3 Harless then devised all her personal belongings, real property, dwellings, and animals to her sister Linda Hyde, or alternatively—if for any reason Hyde was unable to fulfill Harless's expressed wishes—to Hyde's two sons, Ted and Todd Holverson (hereinafter Ted and Todd). She named Hyde as executrix and the Will was signed by a notary and two witnesses. However, the parties dispute whether Harless properly signed the Will.

¶4 In October 2003, Harless executed a Warranty Deed granting real property she owned in Montana to Ted. She later claimed she had deeded the property to Ted based upon a mutual agreement that Ted would return the property to her at any time upon her request. Harless asserted that in 2007 she asked Ted to return the property but he refused. As a result of Ted's refusal, in July 2008, Harless sued Ted for breach of contract, fraud, and undue influence, among other things. This litigation remains pending.

¶5 Shortly thereafter, Harless wrote a letter to Hyde declaring that she (Harless) was out of Hyde's life and the lives of Hyde's family, including Hyde's husband and sons Ted and Todd. In 2009, at a deposition taken in her legal action against Ted, Harless stated that her 2002 Will was "no longer valid" because it was "a joke."

¶6 Harless did not execute another will prior to her death in California on October 2, 2010. In December 2010, Hyde commenced probate proceedings in the Superior Court of California based upon Harless's 2002 Will. In March 2011, the California Court dismissed Hyde's action in a "minute order, " stating that the 2002 Will was not a validly executed will because it did not contain Harless's signature. In May 2011, Martin petitioned Montana's Fifth Judicial District Court to (1) adjudicate that her mother died intestate, (2) appoint her as personal representative, and (3) determine the heirs to her mother's estate. Hyde opposed Martin's petition.

¶7 In February 2013, the District Court ruled that Harless died intestate and Martin was entitled under the priorities set forth in § 72-3-502, MCA, to be appointed as personal representative. The court found that Harless had not signed the Will because her name was printed rather than written in cursive script. The court concluded that the California probate court's determination that Harless's 2002 Will was not a valid will was "persuasive" and agreed that the Will was invalid. Additionally, the court concluded that three separate actions taken by Harless constituted a revocation of the 2002 Will: (1) suing her nephew who was an heir under the Will; (2) writing Hyde a letter in 2008 denouncing a relationship ...


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