Estate of Benjamin

Estate of Benjamin, 2014 MT 241 (Sept. 9, 2014) (5-0) Rice, J.

Issue: Whether the district court erred in dismissing Delmar’s claims for fraud and newly discovered property on the grounds of res judicata.

Short Answer:  Yes.

Reversed

Facts: Norman Benjamin, father of Delmar, Cecil, and three other children, died testate in 2009. Cecil was named PR. Norman’s wife, Joyce, was the sole devisee. However, the will contained a pre-residuary bequest providing that “[a]ny tangible personal property . . . shall be distributed to my surviving children (and not to their descendants) as they may agree.” ¶ 3. If the children could not agree within 90 days after the will was probated, the tangible personal property was to be distributed by lot.

Delmar received notice of the probate hearing, held Jan. 28, 2010, but did not attend. The court approved the will designating Joyce as the sole devisee.

On Dec. 6, 2011, Delmar filed an independent action against Cecil and Joyce for breach of fiduciary duty, alleging that Cecil distributed Norman’s personal property to himself and the other children, but not to Delmar. The district court dismissed on the basis that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction as it was not the court that probated the will, and the Supreme Court affirmed. Benjamin, 2013 MT 293N.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Delmar filed a petition to reopen the probate in the original court, alleging inter alia fraud and actual malice as well as newly discovered personal property that needed to be distributed. The district court dismissed sua sponte  on the grounds of res judicata. Delmar appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: Benjamin I affirmed the district court’s dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction “with prejudice.” The Supreme Court affirmed but did not address the propriety of the dismissal “with prejudice.” Because the Benjamin I court lacked jurisdiction it was powerless to adjudicate the merits of Delmar’s claim, and dismissing with prejudice was improper. Delmar’s fraud and newly discovered property claims depend upon facts that are independent of the initial probate proceeding. Thus, res judicata does not bar Delmar’s claims.