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In re Estate of Edwards

Supreme Court of Montana

April 25, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF HELEN EDWARDS, Deceased.

          Submitted on Briefs: February 15, 2017

         Appeal 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

          For Appellant: Ward E. "Mick" Taleff, Connor J. Murphy, Taleff & Murphy, P.C., Great Falls, Montana Timothy B. Strauch, Strauch Law Firm, PLLC, Missoula, Montana

          For 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)

          For Amicus Curiae: John B. Horrell, Horrell Law Office, PLLC, Missoula, Montana (Attorney for Interim Personal Representative & Special Fiduciary)

          OPINION

          Beth Baker Justice.

         ¶1 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.

         ¶2 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.

         ¶4 We affirm on Issues 1, 2, and 3, and reverse and remand on Issues 4 and 5.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶5 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.

         ¶6 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.

         ¶7 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.

         ¶8 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.

         ¶9 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 testamentary documents.

         ¶10 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.

         ¶11 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.

         ¶12 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 fees.

         ¶13 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.

         ¶14 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."

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶15 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.

         ¶16 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, ¶ 26.

         ¶17 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.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶18 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.

         ¶19 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.

         ¶20 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.

         ¶21 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 Degel's attorneys.

         ¶22 Schulz and Degel both formally objected to Suenram's petition. Schulz argued that Suenram "should advance and advocate for the [2012] 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 ...


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