Estate of Mills

Estate of Mills, 2015 MT 245 (Aug. 18, 2015) (McGrath, C.J.; Rice, J. concurring) (7-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court abused its discretion in denying David’s motion to set aside his default.

Short Answer: Yes.

Reversed

Facts: Howard Mills (“Father”) died June 21, 2014, leaving three sons – Howard W., John, and David. On August 21, 2014 Howard W. petitioned for formal probate of Father’s will, determination of heirs, and appointment of a PR. The district court scheduled a hearing for Sept. 22, 2014. On Aug. 28, 2014. Howard W. sent notices of the hearing to all interested parties, including his brothers, and filed proof of mailing the notices the same day.

David Mills filed a detailed letter in response to the petition on Sept. 8, 2014. The district court asserts the letter was not served on Howard W., but the record contains a copy of the certified mail receipt to Howard W.’s counsel. The court held a hearing Sept., 22, at which Howard appeared with counsel and John and David appeared by telephone, unrepresented. The court ordered objections to be filed within 14 days.

The original minute entry omitted mention of the 14-day objection deadline, but it was added to an amended minute entry.

Neither John nor David objected, and on Oct. 15, 2014, Howard W. moved for entry of default against his brothers. The court set a hearing and notified the parties. Before the hearing, and before default was entered, John and David each moved to set aside the default.

The court held a hearing Nov. 10, 2014, which neither John nor David attended, after which it ordered Howard W., the PR, to respond to the motions to set aside the default.

On Dec. 1, 2014, after briefing, the court denied John’s and David’s motions to set aside the default. 

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court held a hearing on the petition Jan. 12, 2014, and neither John nor David appeared. The court appointed Howard W. as PR and admitted the will to formal probate. David appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: A court may set aside entry of default for good cause, an equitable determination evaluated by three factors: whether the default was willful, whether the plaintiff would be prejudiced if the default were set aside, and whether the defendant has presented a meritorious defense. Courts do not favor defaults.

David’s letter, while not in conventional pleading form, raises a meritorious defense, explaining his father had a prior will as well as his objections to the new will and to appointment of Howard W. as PR. His actions in contesting the will are inconsistent with a finding of willful default.

Because two of the three “good cause” factors are satisfied, the district court’s denial of David’s motion to set aside the default was an abuse of discretion.

Justice Rice’s Concurrence: The Court’s “extreme makeover of the halls of justice” in Hall v. Hall, 2015 MT 226, “undeniably compels relief here.” ¶ 25. “David’s actions here are but a scratch in the paint compared to the total wreck Donald Hall made of the rules of civil and appellate procedure.” Id.