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In re Estate of Cote

Supreme Court of Montana

January 17, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF: JOHN P. COTE, SR. Deceased.
v.
JANICE SMITH-COTE, individually and as Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF JOHN P. COTE, SR., Appellant and Defendant. JOHN P. COTE, JR., individually, KATHERIN CLEMMENCE, individually, and KATHERIN CLEMMENCE and BARBARA C. McEWEN, as Trustees of the RUTH COTE TRUST, Plaintiffs and Appellees, and FARMERS STATE FINANCIAL CORP., Defendant.

          Submitted on Briefs: December 7, 2016

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twenty-First Judicial District, In and For the County of Ravalli, Cause No. DP 12-72 Honorable John W. Larson, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellant: Lon J. Dale, Esq., Michael D. Bybee, Esq., Milodragovich, Dale & Steinbrenner, P.C., Missoula, Montana Royce A. McCarty, Jr., Attorney at Law, Hamilton, Montana (Attorney for Janice Smith)

          For Appellee: Robert Terrazas, Dana A. Henkel, Terrazas Law Office, Missoula, Montana (Attorney for Cotes)

          David Jackson, John H. Grant, Murry Warhank, Jackson, Murdo & Grant, P.C., Helena, Montana (Attorneys for Famers State Financial Corp.)

          OPINION

          James Jeremiah Shea, Justice

         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Janice Smith-Cote appeals a Twenty-First Judicial District Court, Ravalli County, order declaring John P. Cote, Sr.'s January 5, 2011 will null and void, removing Smith-Cote as personal representative of John's estate, and removing a lis pendens on trust property. We address whether the District Court erred in reaching these decisions. We affirm.

         ¶3 In November 2009, John and Smith-Cote were married. Before they met, John was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On February 5, 2011, John succumbed to his illness and died. On January 5, 2011, exactly one month before his death, John signed a will leaving a broken-down El Camino to his son, John P. Cote, Jr. (JP), two Navajo blankets to his daughter, Katherin Clemmence, and the remainder of his property to Smith-Cote. The will also nominated Smith-Cote as the personal representative of John's estate. On October 3, 2012, Smith-Cote filed an application in Ravalli County District Court for informal probate of the January 5, 2011 will and for her appointment as personal representative of John's estate. Ravalli County is the location of 80 acres of real property, including a cabin, to which the Ruth Cote Trust holds title. Smith-Cote claimed John had a vested interest in this property. The District Court granted Smith-Cote's application and issued an order admitting the January 5, 2011 will to informal probate and appointing Smith-Cote as personal representative.

         ¶4 On February 28, 2013, Barbara C. McEwen, [1] JP, and Clemmence (collectively, "the Cote Family"), filed a petition requesting the District Court to: (1) invalidate the January 5, 2011 will, (2) probate John's October 1980 will, (3) remove Smith-Cote as personal representative, and (4) issue a declaratory judgment that neither Smith-Cote nor John's estate holds any interest in the Ruth Cote Trust property. The Cote Family also asserted claims against Smith-Cote for breach of contract, tortious interference, and breach of fiduciary duty. Smith-Cote counterclaimed and filed a lis pendens on the Ruth Cote Trust property. On June 30, 2014, the Cote Family amended their petition, adding claims against Smith-Cote for undue influence, conversion, fraud, and unjust enrichment related to the execution of the January 5, 2011 will.[2] On July 30, 2014, the District Court issued an order granting the Cote Family's petition for a declaratory judgment that neither Smith-Cote nor John's estate holds any interest in the Ruth Cote Trust property.

         ¶5 On August 31 and September 1, 2015, the District Court held a two-day bench trial. On the eve of trial, Smith-Cote's counsel disclosed the existence of a will John had signed on January 2, 2011, and advised the District Court that the signed will was in Renton, Washington. Later that day, the District Court obtained a signed copy of the January 2, 2011 will from the Hamilton office of probate counsel Royce Allen McCarty, Jr. On September 8, 2015, the January 2, 2011 will was filed in the District Court.

         ¶6 On October 27, 2015, the Cote Family filed a motion for sanctions, asking the District Court to enter a default judgment striking the January 2 and January 5, 2011 wills, and removing Smith-Cote as personal representative as sanctions for Smith-Cote's alleged fraud, discovery abuses, and violations of court orders. On May 9, 2016, the District Court issued an order denying probate of the January 5, 2011 will as a sanction for discovery violations. The Court also issued alternative findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order denying probate of the January 5, 2011 will on the basis that John lacked testamentary capacity when he signed it. The District Court also ordered Smith-Cote to remove her lis pendens on the Ruth Cote Trust property. Smith-Cote appeals the District Court's May 9, 2016 order.

         ¶7 We review a district court's findings of fact, including whether a testator has testamentary capacity, for clear error and its conclusions of law, including statutory interpretation, for correctness. See In re Estate of Quirin, 2015 MT 132, ¶¶ 10, 17, 379 Mont. 173, 348 P.3d 658. A district court's findings are clearly erroneous if they are not supported by substantial evidence, if the court misapprehended the effect of the evidence, or if our review of the record convinces us that the district court made a mistake. Quirin, ¶ 10. We review a district court's removal of an estate's personal representative for an abuse of discretion. In re Estate of Hannum, 2012 MT 171, ¶ 18, 366 Mont. 1, 285 P.3d 463. A district court "abuses its discretion when it acts arbitrarily without employment of conscientious judgment or exceeds the bounds of reason resulting in substantial injustice." Hannum, ¶ 18.

         ¶8 Although the District Court denied probate of the January 5, 2011 will on two separate bases-as a sanction and due to its conclusion that the will was invalid-we resolve this case on the latter basis. Therefore, we address only the District Court's May 9, 2016 alternative findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order in which the District Court found that ...


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