Estate of Harris

Estate of Harris, 2015 MT 182 (June 30, 2015) (Baker, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court properly allowed probate of Dorothea Harris’s estate, and (2) whether the district court properly granted summary judgment to Harris on Contestants’ objections.

Short Answer: (1) Yes, overruling Estate of Taylor, and (2) yes.

Affirmed

Facts: Dorothea Harris’s surviving adult children (Contestants) challenge the informal probate initiated by their stepfather, Lincoln Harris, as well as the validity of a will devising to Harris all of the mineral rights from their mother’s estate. Dorothea married Lincoln in 1965 after the death of her first husband, who was the natural father of the three Contestants as well as a fourth child, Theodore, who died in 1997.

Dorothea inherited certain mineral interests in Richland County, which she devised in equal shares to her children and Lincoln in a will executed in 1983. She executed a new will in 1997 under which she devised her entire estate to Lincoln, including the mineral interests, and named him PR. Lincoln did not probate the 1997 will.

In 2013, an oil and gas company determined Lincoln was not the legal owner of the mineral interests, and informed him a probate proceeding was necessary before it could pay proceeds to him. In July 2013, Lincoln applied for informal probate of the 1997 will and for appointment as PR. The clerk of court granted the application, admitted the 1997 will to informal probate, and appointed Lincoln PR.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Contestants received notice of the probate and filed objections. Lincoln moved for SJ. The district court determined there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding either Dorothea’s testamentary capacity when she executed the 1997 will, or whether Lincoln exerted undue influence on her. Contestants appeal, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) Contestants argue that § 72-3-122, MCA, prohibits Lincoln from initiating probate proceedings 14 years after Dorothea’s death. Generally, the statute says no probate proceedings may be commenced more than three years after the decedent’s death, but lists exceptions. Subsection (d) applies here. To the extent Estate of Taylor conflicts, it is overruled.

(2) Although laches would have barred Contestants from probating the 1983 will, it does not prevent Contestants’ objections to probating the 1997 will. Contestants were unaware of the 1997 will until Lincoln initiated informal probate of it in 2013. The Supreme Court agrees that Contestants’ affidavits do not present a triable issue of fact regarding Dorothea’s testamentary capacity.