Matter of Estate of Edwards, 2017 MT 93 (April 25, 2017) (Baker, J.) (5-0, aff’d & rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in appointing a neutral personal representative; (2) whether the district court abused its discretion in evidentiary rulings at trial; (3) whether substantial credible evidence supported 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 after the jury’s verdict; and (5) whether the district court erred in refusing to award Verone attorney fees and certain costs.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; (3) yes; (4) yes; and (5) yes.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Facts: Helen died in May 2013 at the age of 96. Prior to her husband Jim’s death, Helen and Jim executed will naming Verone as the primary beneficiary, Verone had maintained a close relationship with Helen and Jim for many years.

In September 2010, Helen executed a new will and created the Helen Edwards Trust. The 2010 will included a pour-over clause distributing the residue of her estate into the trust. The 2010 will and 2010 trust devised most of Helen’s estate to Verone. The 2010 will named Verone PR, and the 2010 trust named Helena and Verone co-trustees. The 2010 trust also prescribed a procedure for amending the trust terms.

In 2011, Verone hired Schulz as a housekeeper for Helen. Degel occasionally worked as a handyman for Helen. In November 2012, Helen executed a new will and amended her trust, leaving much of her estate to Schulz and Degel, and reducing Verone’s gift to $25,000. The 2012 will appoint4ed Schulz and R.D. Corette as co-PRs, and the 2012 trust removed Verone as a co-trustee. The 2012 trust provided for a $300,000 gift to Ruby Valley Hospital.

After Helen died, Schulz and Corette petitioned for formal probate of the 2012 will. The court appointed Corette special administrator of the estate. Verone filed objections, arguing Schulz and others procured the will by undue influence. Verone offered the 2010 will for probate and asserted that it and the 2010 trust represented Helen’s last valid wishes.

The court appointed Suenram as interim PR and special fiduciary of the trust.

Procedural Posture & Holding: At the close of trial, the jury returned a special verdict finding Schulz or Degel had procured the 2012 will and 2012 trust by undue influence, fraud, or duress. The jury also found that the 2012 trust did not violate the 2010 trust’s requirements for amendment or revocation. Verone filed a bill of costs and statement of fees. The court denied her request for fees and partially denied her bill of costs. Verone also petitioned the court to admit the 2010 will to probate and declare the 2010 trust valid and enforceable. The court denied those requests, reasoning that the litigation had nothing to do with the validity of those instruments. Verone appeals and Schulz cross-appeals. The Supreme Court affirms in part and reverses in part.

Reasoning: (1) This litigation was a contest between two competing wills to determine which should be admitted to probate. The court committed no legal error when it appointed Suenram as a neutral personal representative and held that he had no duty to defend either will until a determination had been made as to which will was valid and effective.

(2) The district court did not abuse its discretion in its challenged evidentiary rulings. Even if the district court erred in excluding Dr. Evans’ testimony, the error is not cause for reversing the verdict.

(3) The evidence before the jury that Schulz or Degel exercised undue influence on Helen was substantial. There was also substantial circumstantial evidence on which the jury could conclude that Schulz or Degel had committed “specific acts” to “procure the execution of the will.” Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Verone, the Court concludes that the jury’s findings that the 2012 Will and the 2012 Trust were procured by “undue influence, fraud, or duress” were supported by substantial credible evidence.

(4) The district court erred in refusing to admit the 2010 will to probate and to enforce the terms of the 2010 trust. The Court reverses and remands.

(5) This case involved a petition for probate of a will and a cross-petition for probate of an earlier will. The personal representative remained a “neutral third party” and did not defend the validity of either will. Had Suenram defended either of these wills, he would have been entitled to fees from the Estate under § 72-3-632, MCA. But because the appointed personal representative did not advocate for one of these wills over the other, § 72-3-632, MCA, does not apply. Verone contested the 2012 will but defended the 2010 will. The district court erred in denying her attorney fees for defending the 2010 will.