IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN P. COONEY, II, Deceased.
Submitted on Briefs: November 6, 2019
FROM: District Court of the Fourteenth Judicial District, In
and For the County of Wheatland, Cause No. DP 15-04 Honorable
Randal I. Spaulding, Presiding Judge
Appellants: Rebecca R. Swandal, Swandal Law, PLLC,
Appellee: Brandon JT Hoskins, Jeff G. Sorenson, Moulton
Bellingham PC, Billings, Montana
John Cooney II died in 2015, devising his property by will to
his son John Cooney III. John II's daughters moved to
invalidate parts of his will in the probate proceedings,
claiming that the will contravened a prior marital property
settlement agreement between John II and his ex-wife. In that
agreement, incorporated into John II's dissolution
decree, he agreed to leave real property he owned to all of
his children "in equal shares to share and share
alike." The District Court denied the daughters'
motion for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and this
appeal followed. We affirm for the reason that their claim is
not properly brought in the probate proceedings.
AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
John II and his ex-wife, Loriann Cooney, divorced in 1980.
They entered into a Separation and Property Settlement
Agreement ("Separation Agreement"), in which they
agreed that the remainder of the ranch property that John II
owned at the time of his death would be distributed to their
daughters, Jonnie and Melissa, "and any other children
hereinafter born to [John II], in equal shares to share and
share alike." The dissolution court incorporated the
Separation Agreement into the final decree. John II later had
two more children, Jill and John III. John Cooney II died on
April 27, 2015. His final written will, executed in 2011,
left all of his real property to John III.
John II's will was admitted to formal probate in the
Fourteenth Judicial District Court, Wheatland County.
Appellants Jonnie, Melissa, and Jill ("Daughters")
filed a motion to invalidate portions of the will that left
the property entirely to John III, arguing that those
portions contravened the Separation Agreement, resulting in
fraud on the court. The District Court denied their motion,
concluding that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction
over equitable claims for relief and claims at law while
sitting in probate. The Daughters appeal, asserting that the
court erred when it determined that the Daughters could not
enforce the Separation Agreement in the probate proceeding.
They argue that the probate court had subject matter
jurisdiction to administer the estate in accordance with the
Separation Agreement because it directly involves the
estate's property, and the probate court has jurisdiction
to determine that they were the rightful heirs and successors
to the property by virtue of the Separation Agreement.
Whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction is a question
of law that we review for correctness. Haugen v.
Haugen, 2008 MT 304, ¶ 8, 346 Mont. 1, 192 P.3d
1132. Formal probate proceedings are subject to the Montana
Rules of Civil Procedure. In re Estate of Glennie,
2011 MT 291, ¶ 10, 362 Mont. 508, 265 P.3d 654; §
72-1-207, MCA. The parties agree that the District
Court's denial of the Daughters' motion is analogous
to a dismissal for failure to state a claim on which relief
could be granted. We accordingly apply our standard of review
for a motion to dismiss under M. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
Glennie, ¶ 10 (citing McKinnon v. W. Sugar
Coop. Corp., 2010 MT 24, ¶ 12, 355 Mont. 120, 225
P.3d 1221). A district court's determination that a
complaint failed to state a claim is a conclusion of law that
we review for correctness. Glennie, ¶ 11
(citing McKinnon, ¶ 12).
1. Did the District Court err when it determined it did
not have subject matter jurisdiction to enforce the
Separation Agreement while sitting in probate?
A district court sitting in probate has limited, not general,
jurisdiction as ...