Estate of Lawlor

Estate of Lawlor, 2015 MT 54 (Feb. 24, 2015) (Wheat, J.; McKinnon, J. dissenting) (5-2, aff’d & rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred in holding that Audrey lacked standing to contest Dennis’s will, and (2) whether the district court erred in determining that Audrey lacked standing to petition for the removal of the PR for cause.

Short Answer: (1) yes, and (2) no.

Reversed on (1), affirmed on (2)

Facts: Dennis Lawlor executed a will on Dec. 6, 2012, and died the next day. He had no children, and was survived by three siblings, Antoinette, Mary, and John. His sister Joan predeceased him, and was survived by her daughter, Audrey, and Audrey’s son, John. The will devised all of Dennis’s estate to his living sisters, Antoinette and Mary. It appointed Antoinette’s son Mark as PR.

Mark submitted the will to district court five days after Dennis died for informal probate and appointment as the PR. The clerk granted both requests. Letters were issued and filed, and notice given to Dennis’s heirs, the devisees, and the Estate’s creditors.

Audrey petitioned to have the informal probate converted to formal probate in May 2013, challenging Dennis’ competence when executing the will. Mark consented to the conversion, and formal probate began.

Audrey and John filed a complaint contesting the will in October 2013, alleging Dennis lacked testamentary capacity, was subject to undue influence, and alleging that Mark and his brother had tortuously interfered and breached fiduciary duties. They did not seek Mark’s removal as PR in the complaint, but did so in a separate motion, alleging conflicts of interest with the estate, and also seeking Mark’s brother john’s removal as attorney for the estate. Dennis’s brother John was added as a plaintiff in March 2014.

Procedural Posture & Holding: John, Mark’s brother, moved for a determination of whether plaintiffs had standing to move to remove the PR and the estate’s attorney. The district court held that Audrey and her son lacked standing to contest the will or to petition for removal of the PR or the estate’s attorney. Audrey appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms and reverses.

Reasoning: (1) To have standing to contest a will, a party must be an “interested person” under the probate code. A person is “interested” if he or she has a pecuniary interest in setting aside the will. Audrey has standing to contest the will.

(2) Audrey does not have a claim against or property interest in the estate, nor priority for appointment as PR, and no other interest in the outcome of the petition for removal of the PR for cause. She therefore lacks standing to petition for removal of the PR. If her challenge to the will is successful, she will have a property interest in the estate and would then have standing.

Justice McKinnon’s Dissent (joined by Cotter, J.): Justice McKinnon would reverse on both issues, and hold that Audrey has standing both to contest the will and to petition for removal of the PR for cause. She contends the Court’s analysis is flawed in its failure to distinguish between informal and formal probate, and in its attempt to distinguish “interested person” for a will contest from “person interested in the estate” under the removal statute.