IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF HELEN EDWARDS, Deceased.
Submitted on Briefs: February 15, 2017
From District Court of the Fifth Judicial District, In and
For the County of Madison, Cause No. DP 29-2013-21 Honorable
Loren Tucker, Presiding Judge
Appellant: Ward E. "Mick" Taleff, Connor J. Murphy,
Taleff & Murphy, P.C., Great Falls, Montana Timothy B.
Strauch, Strauch Law Firm, PLLC, Missoula, Montana
Appellees: Stephanie Gehres Kruer, Kruer Law Firm, P.C.,
Sheridan, Montana (Attorney for Nancy Shulz) Lyman H.
Bennett, III, Attorney at Law, Virginia City, Montana
(Attorney for Paul Degel)
Amicus Curiae: John B. Horrell, Horrell Law Office, PLLC,
Missoula, Montana (Attorney for Interim Personal
Representative & Special Fiduciary)
In September 2010, Helen Edwards executed a will and created
a trust (2010 Will and 2010 Trust), leaving most of her
estate to her niece, G.G. Verone. She executed a new will and
amended her trust in 2012 (2012 Will and 2012 Trust), leaving
much of her estate to her housekeeper, Nancy Schulz, and to
her handyman, Paul Degel. Helen died in 2013. Schulz
petitioned for probate of the 2012 Will. Verone objected and
cross-petitioned for probate of the 2010 Will and for
validation of the 2010 Trust. The District Court appointed
Andrew Suenram, an attorney, as a neutral personal
representative of the estate until it could be decided which
of the two wills should be admitted to probate.
Following trial, a Madison County jury found in a special
verdict that Schulz or Degel procured the 2012 Will and 2012
Trust by "undue influence, fraud, or duress."
Verone then moved to admit the 2010 Will to probate, to
validate the 2010 Trust, and for attorney fees. The court
denied her requests, and Verone appeals those denials. Schulz
cross-appeals the court's appointment of Suenram as a
neutral personal representative, several evidentiary rulings
at trial, and the jury's special verdict. ¶3 We
address the parties' claims in the following issues:
1. Whether the District Court erred in appointing a neutral
personal representative who was not required to defend the
2012 Will against Verone's challenge;
2. Whether the District Court abused its discretion in its
evidentiary rulings at trial;
3. Whether substantial credible evidence existed to support
the jury's findings that the 2012 Will and the 2012 Trust
were procured by undue influence, fraud, or duress;
4. Whether the District Court erred in refusing to admit the
2010 Will to probate or to enforce the 2010 Trust following
the jury's special verdict;
5. Whether the District Court erred in refusing to award
Verone attorney fees and certain costs.
We affirm on Issues 1, 2, and 3, and reverse and remand on
Issues 4 and 5.
AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Helen died at the age of 96 in May 2013. Prior to her husband
Jim's death, Helen and Jim executed wills naming Verone
the primary beneficiary. Verone had maintained a close
relationship with Helen and Jim for many years.
Helen executed a new will and created the Helen Edwards Trust
in September 2010. The 2010 Will included a pour-over clause
distributing the residue of Helen's estate into the
Trust. The 2010 Will and 2010 Trust devised most of
Helen's estate to Verone. The 2010 Will named Verone
personal representative of the estate, and the 2010 Trust
named Helen and Verone co-trustees. The 2010 Trust also
prescribed a procedure for amending the terms of the trust.
Verone hired Schulz in 2011 to work as a housekeeper for
Helen. Degel occasionally worked as a handyman for Helen.
Helen executed a new will and amended her trust in November
2012, leaving much of her estate to Schulz and Degel, and
reducing Verone's gift to $25, 000. The 2012 Will
appointed Schulz and R.D. Corette, an attorney, as
co-personal representatives, and the 2012 Trust removed
Verone as a co-trustee. The 2012 Trust provided also for a
$300, 000 gift to the Ruby Valley Hospital.
After Helen's death, Schulz and Corette petitioned for
formal probate of the 2012 Will. The court appointed Corette
as special administrator of the estate. Verone filed
objections to probate of the 2012 Will, arguing that Schulz
and others procured that will by undue influence. Verone
simultaneously offered the 2010 Will for probate and asserted
that it and the 2010 Trust represented Helen's last,
valid dispositional intentions.
The court appointed Suenram as interim personal
representative of the estate and special fiduciary of the
trust. It declared that, because the case sought to determine
which of the two sets of testamentary documents was valid,
Suenram would not advocate for one set over the other.
Suenram informed the parties that he intended to remain
neutral as to the validity of the competing sets of
The case proceeded to trial in November 2015. At trial, the
court made multiple evidentiary rulings over Schulz's and
Degel's objections. First, it admitted into evidence
documentation of a settlement agreement between Verone and
Ruby Valley Hospital, in which Verone agreed to grant the
Hospital a $300, 000 gift even if the jury invalidated the
2012 testamentary documents. Second, it sustained
Verone's objections to testimony by Helen's attorneys
regarding what she allegedly told them about her estate
plans. Third, it barred one of Schulz's witnesses, Dr.
Megan Evans, from testifying altogether.
At the close of trial, the jury returned a special verdict
finding that Schulz or Degel had procured the 2012 Will and
2012 Trust by "undue influence, fraud, or duress."
The jury found also that the 2012 Trust did not violate the
2010 Trust's requirements for amendment or revocation.
The special verdict form did not ask the jury to make any
findings on the 2010 Will or the 2010 Trust.
Verone filed a bill of costs and statement of fees. The court
denied her request for attorney fees and partially denied her
request for costs. It reasoned that Verone was statutorily
barred from recovering attorney fees because the trial
addressed only the validity of the 2012 Will, Verone
"contested" that will, and only parties who
successfully "defended" a will were entitled to
Verone also petitioned the court to admit the 2010 Will to
probate and to declare the 2010 Trust valid, binding, and
enforceable. When the court entered judgment, it denied
Verone's requests, reasoning that the litigation
"decided nothing about the validity" of the 2010
Will or the 2010 Trust.
Verone appeals the court's denial of her requests
regarding the 2010 Will and the 2010 Trust and its denial of
her request for attorney fees and costs. Schulz cross-appeals
the court's appointment of Suenram as a neutral personal
representative, the court's three evidentiary rulings at
trial, and the jury's special verdict finding "undue
influence, fraud, or duress."
We review a district court's appointment of a personal
representative to determine whether the court correctly
interpreted the law. In re Estate of McMurchie, 2004
MT 98, ¶ 7, 321 Mont. 21, 89 P.3d 18. A district
court's evidentiary rulings, including the admission of
expert testimony, are reviewed for abuse of discretion.
Beehler v. E. Radiological Assocs., P.C., 2012 MT
260, ¶ 17, 367 Mont. 21, 289 P.3d 131.
We review a jury's verdict in a civil case to determine
if it is supported by substantial credible evidence. D.R.
Four Beat Alliance, LLC v. Sierra Prod. Co., 2009 MT
319, ¶ 23, 352 Mont. 435, 218 P.3d 827; Murray v.
Whitcraft, 2012 MT 298, ¶ 7, 367 Mont. 364, 291
P.3d 587. Substantial credible evidence is evidence that a
reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a
conclusion. D.R. Four Beat Alliance, LLC, ¶ 23.
We view the evidence in a light most favorable to the
prevailing party below. Murray, ¶ 7. If
conflicting evidence exists, the credibility and weight given
to the evidence is in the jury's province, Campbell
v. Canty, 1998 MT 278, ¶ 19, 291 Mont. 398, 969
P.2d 268, and we do not retry the case because the jury chose
to believe one party over the other, Murray, ¶
We review a party's entitlement to judgment as a matter
of law de novo. Johnson v. Costco
Wholesale, 2007 MT 43, ¶ 18, 336 Mont. 105, 152
P.3d 727. A district court's determination whether legal
authority exists for an award of attorney fees is a
conclusion of law, which we review for correctness.
Mlekush v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 2015 MT 302, ¶
8, 381 Mont. 292, 358 P.3d 913. If legal authority exists to
award attorney fees, we review a district court's
decision to grant or deny fees to a party for an abuse of
discretion. Wohl v. City of Missoula, 2013 MT 46,
¶ 29, 369 Mont. 108, 300 P.3d 1119.
1. Whether the District Court erred in appointing a
neutral personal representative who was not required
to defend the 2012 Will against Verone's challenge.
The court initially appointed Corette as special
administrator of the Estate, but authorized him only to
marshal assets and accounts, to open an estate bank account,
and to pay estate bills. Given the two competing wills, the
court entered an order stating that it was "inclined to
appoint a neutral person/party [as personal
representative]" rather than someone "who may have
an interest in the interpretation or validity of [the]
disputed documents." Verone and special administrator
Corette filed a joint motion requesting that the court
appoint Suenram as interim personal representative. They
suggested that, because the proceedings "involve a Will
contest to determine which of two Wills should be probated,
" Suenram should be appointed "until there has been
a legal determination of which Will shall be probated."
The court then issued an order appointing Suenram as interim
personal representative and terminating Corette's
appointment as special administrator.
Suenram petitioned the court for appointment as special
fiduciary of Helen's Trust. He filed a notice of issue
pertaining to this appointment and served copies on Schulz
and Degel. The court granted Suenram's petition and
appointed him special fiduciary of the Trust. Suenram then
filed a notice and information to heirs and devisees,
confirming his appointment as interim personal
representative, and served copies on Schulz and Degel.
Suenram mailed a letter to Schulz and to Degel's attorney
in which he stated that he did not intend to "advocate
for one testamentary document over another, " because to
do so would contradict his role as a "neutral and
disinterested party." Suenram requested that the parties
stipulate that he had "no fiduciary obligation to
advocate for any of the testamentary documents prepared for
Helen Edwards." He informed the parties that, if they
did not agree to the stipulation, he would "petition the
Court for a declaratory ruling regarding [his] fiduciary
obligation." When neither Schulz nor Degel's
attorney signed the stipulation, Suenram petitioned the court
to declare that he was not obligated to defend the validity
of any particular testamentary documents, including the 2012
documents. Suenram served this petition on Schulz's and
Schulz and Degel both formally objected to Suenram's
petition. Schulz argued that Suenram "should advance and
advocate for the  Will and against the current
challenge to the Will." The District Court granted
Suenram's petition. The Final Pretrial Order, signed by
counsel for all parties, stipulated that, pursuant to court
orders, "Mr. Suenram is a neutral third party in this
matter. His role is that of a fiduciary to preserve and
maintain the assets of the estate ...