Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in North Dakota Supreme Court
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Cheryl Feickert appealed a district court’s judgment entered after a bench trial. Ashley Feickert was a minor when her father died intestate in 1988. Ashley inherited an undivided one-fourth interest in real property from her father. Her mother, Cheryl, became her conservator in 1990. Cheryl, as conservator, leased Ashley's interest in the land starting in April 1989, but failed to provide an accounting of the lease income until September 2020. In March 2021, Ashley filed suit against Cheryl alleging breach of fiduciary duties for failure to keep suitable records, self-dealing, and failure to distribute assets as Ashley's conservator. Cheryl filed an answer asserting the affirmative defenses of estoppel, waiver, laches, contributory negligence, unclean hands, and unjust enrichment. The answer included a prayer for relief requesting the court to dismiss the action, award reasonable fees and costs, and any other such relief the court deemed just and proper. Cheryl's answer did not include facts supporting her claimed defenses, nor did it specifically include a counterclaim for unjust enrichment or a request for a damages offset. The matter was tried to a district court and judgment entered in Ashley's favor. On appeal, Cheryl argued the district court erred by failing to consider her unjust enrichment claim and by denying her an offset to the damages awarded to Ashley. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Feickert v. Feickert" on Justia Law

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Attorney DeWayne Johnston, on behalf of the late David Knapp, appealed the dismissal entered after the district court denied a motion to substitute Knapp’s widow as plaintiff under N.D.R.Civ.P. 25. Attorney DeWayne Johnston, on behalf of the late David Knapp, appeals from a dismissal judgment entered after the district court denied a motion to substitute Knapp’s widow as plaintiff under N.D.R.Civ.P. 25. This litigation began after the Minnesota Department of Revenue issued a third-party levy on securities held by Edward Jones for Knapp. Knapp sued the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Revenue and Edward Jones in North Dakota seeking dissolution of the levy. Knapp subsequently commenced this lawsuit against Edward Jones requesting dissolution of the levy or a declaration that his securities were exempt from the levy. He also brought a conversion claim and requested damages. The district court ordered the case stayed pending arbitration under terms in Edward Jones account agreements. Knapp died during the stay. Edward Jones served Knapp’s counsel, Attorney Johnston, with a statement noting Knapp’s death. Attorney Johnston filed a motion on Knapp’s behalf requesting Knapp’s widow, Cabrini Knapp, be substituted as plaintiff under N.D.R.Civ.P. 25. The court held a hearing. After the hearing, the court denied the substitution motion and dismissed the case with prejudice. The court noted that ownership of the securities had transferred to Cabrini Knapp and her “rights are not extinguished by this order and there is no prejudice to her in denying the motion to substitute her as a party.” The North Dakota Supreme Court granted Edward Jones’ motion and dismissed the appeal, agreeing that Johnston could not appeal on behalf of a dead person. If Johnston was not authorized to file this appeal, his motion to substitute on appeal was moot. View "Knapp v. The Jones Financial Co., et al." on Justia Law

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Dennis Henderson and James Henderson, individually and as co-trustees of the Rose Henderson Peterson Mineral Trust, appealed a district court judgment in which the court determined they paid themselves an unreasonable amount of compensation from the Trust for their duties as trustees. The court ordered the Trustees return a portion of the compensation and that all parties’ attorney fees be paid with Trust funds. On appeal, the North Dakota Supreme Court found the questions presented in this case were not barred by the law of the case doctrine or res judicata. Furthermore, the Court determined that additional findings were required concerning application of an exculpatory provision in the Trust as well as the issue of whether the doctrine of laches applies. The Court retained jurisdiction but remanded for additional findings. View "Matter of Rose Henderson Peterson Mineral Trust" on Justia Law

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Allen Betz and Timothy Betz (“the Betzes”) appealed a district court’s order finding them to be vexatious litigants and requiring them to obtain leave of court prior to filing documents in any new or existing litigation. The Betzes also argued the court erred in issuing a July 16, 2008 order reforming the Emelia Hirsch June 9, 1994, Irrevocable Trust. After review, the Supreme Court: (1) affirmed the district court’s deemed denial of Allen Betz’s motion under N.D.R.Civ.P. 60(b); (2) vacated that portion of the court’s September 30, 2021 order finding Allen Betz a vexatious litigant, and remanded to the presiding judge for further consideration; (3) dismissed Timothy Betz’s appeal, because denial of leave to file was not appealable. The Court awarded double costs and attorney’s fees of $500 to the Trustees, and remanded for further proceedings. View "Matter of Emelia Hirsch Trust" on Justia Law

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Clark Beach appealed a district court order denying his petition for formal probate of a holographic will. Clark was the brother of Skip Beach (“decedent”). The decedent lived in Golden Valley County, North Dakota. He was survived by seven siblings and one daughter. The will at issue was submitted to informal probate, and co-personal representatives were appointed. Clark filed a petition for formal probate of the will. The purported holographic will left everything the decedent owned to Clark. The court entered its order denying the petition for formal probate of the holographic will. The court found the signature “Skip Beach” on the proposed holographic will was the decedent’s signature based on the evidence. The court held the clause “Everything I own” was a material portion and was not in the decedent’s handwriting. The court reasoned that the clause appeared to have been written in different ink, was lighter in appearance, and was slanted different than the rest of the document. Additionally, the court found the clause was smaller in text and was written in only printed letters while other portions of the document use a mix of cursive and printed letters. The court stated the testimony given by Clark Beach, his siblings, and others did not change the court’s finding and stated “[n]one of these individuals are handwriting experts, and none of them ever saw this purported will before Skip’s death.” The court held that Clark Beach failed to meet his burden of proof that a material portion of the document was in the testator’s handwriting as required by law. Clark argued the district court erred in finding the material portions of the holographic will were not in the testator’s handwriting. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the order denying the petition for formal probate. View "Estate of Beach" on Justia Law

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Scott Smith and Kristen Hackmann, co-personal representatives of William Smith’s estate, appealed a February 17, 2021 order denying their post-judgment motions and granting Charlene and LeeAllen Smith’s motion to enforce the existing judgment. On June 15, 2020, the co-personal representatives filed an amended inventory and appraisement along with a notice of proposed distribution. Charlene Smith objected to the proposed distribution and filed a motion to compel compliance with the November 2, 2018 Judgment. In response to the motion to compel, the co-personal representatives argued that Charlene Smith had rejected the distribution reflected in the November 2, 2018 Judgment by filing for an elective share, she had no probable cause to challenge the will so the penalty clause in the will had been triggered, and the question of whether she was entitled to a share of the estate remained open. Charlene Smith’s assertion of an elective share and challenge to the will were within the litigation between the parties prior to the entry of the 2018 Judgment. A hearing was held on October 13, 2020. Charlene Smith argued that the 2018 Judgment was final regardless of a provision that left open an increase in legal and administrative fees. The co-personal representatives argued there were mistakes in the 2018 inventory and appraisement and questioned whether the district court should require distributions pursuant to the 2018 Judgment, the supplemental inventory, or start over. During the hearing, all of the parties provided argument on the issue of whether the 2018 Judgment was final. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court noted: “These matters—or the Motion to Compel issue, obviously, needs to be decided first.” The court found the 2018 Judgment was final, the time to appeal the November 2, 2018 Judgment had passed, LeeAllen and Charlene Smith were entitled to their distributions pursuant to the 2018 Judgment, and the finality of the 2018 Judgment precluded resolution of the co-personal representatives’ post-judgment motions. The court ordered attorney’s fees to be paid by the co-personal representatives personally after finding there was no basis in law to support their post-judgment motions and their authority as personal representatives had ceased. The North Dakota Supreme Court concurred the 2018 Judgment was final, thereby affirming the February 2021 order. View "Estate of Smith" on Justia Law

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Henry H. Behle IV appealed the grant of summary judgment and award of attorney’s fees in favor of Darren Harr as personal representative of the Estate of Henry L. Behle. Behle filed a petition asking the district court to determine the validity of the decedent’s will and convert the administration to a formal probate. Harr, as personal representative of the Estate, objected to Behle’s petition and moved for summary judgment. Behle argued the probate application was defective because an electronic copy of the decedent’s will was filed with the district court rather than the original. Behle also claimed Harr asserted undue influence over the decedent. The district court granted Harr’s motion for summary judgment and allowed the probate to proceed informally. Harr thereafter moved for an award of attorney's fees. The North Dakota Supreme Court concluded Behle’s contentions only amounted to suspicion; viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Behle, no genuine issue of material fact existed regarding undue influence. Therefore, the Court concluded the district court did not err in granting summary judgment. However, the Supreme Court found the district court erred in ordering Behle to pay attorney's fees: the district court did not analyze whether the allegations in Behle’s petition were made in good faith when it awarded attorney’s fees under N.D.C.C. 28-26-31. Instead, the district court focused on Behle’s arguments made in opposition to summary judgment. "The plain words of the statute pertain only to pleadings and not to motions or other documents. Accordingly, the district court abused its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees under N.D.C.C. 28-26-31." View "Estate of Behle" on Justia Law

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Michael J. Tharaldson executed an “Irrevocable Trust Agreement” on February 14, 2007. The trust named State Bank & Trust (now known as Bell Bank), as trustee. On October 3, 2011, Tharaldson executed an “Irrevocable Trust Agreement II” and merged assets from the first trust into the second trust. Tharaldson died intestate on December 11, 2017. On June 28, 2019, Bell Bank filed a petition seeking the district court’s determination of trust beneficiaries and approval of asset distribution. Bell Bank claimed the sole beneficiary was Tharaldson’s brother, Matthew Tharaldson. Tharaldson had three biological children. Bell Bank mailed its petition, proposed order, and notice of hearing to the two adult children. Bell Bank sent the documents via email to the attorney representing Tharaldson’s minor child, E.M., in the separate probate action. E.M. challenged the court's jurisdiction after it ultimately granted Bell Bank's petition to distribute the trust assets. The district court found the language of the trust was not ambiguous, Tharaldson died intestate, and Matthew Tharaldson was the sole beneficiary of the trust, entitling him to distribution of all trust assets. E.M. argued on appeal that the district court erred in granting Bell Bank’s petition. He claimed the merger of assets from the first trust to the second trust was invalid. E.M. also claimed the trust designated E.M. and his siblings as the only beneficiaries, entitling them to share in the trust assets, and entitling E.M. to recover attorney’s fees. Bell Bank and Matthew Tharaldson argued collateral estoppel barred relitigation of E.M.’s claims in this case because of the district court’s findings about E.M.’s status as an heir in the Tharaldson probate case. The North Dakota Supreme Court determined the district court’s order denying E.M.’s demand for change of judge should have been granted, making the assigned judge's actions with respect to the merits of E.M.'s claims invalid. This case was remanded for assignment of a new judge and for proceedings anew on the merits of the petition. View "Matter of Michael J. Tharaldson Trust" on Justia Law

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Henry H. Behle IV appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Darren Harr as the personal representative of the Estate of Henry L. Behle. The district court held Behle’s claims against the Estate concerning two parcels of real estate were untimely under N.D.C.C. 30.1-19-03(2), which barred certain claims that were not brought within three months of a decedent’s death. The court also held Behle’s claim to personal property was barred by the six-year statute of limitations for conversion under N.D.C.C. 28-01-16. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "Behle v. Harr" on Justia Law

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Steve and Russell Hartman, as personal representatives of the estate of Ray Hartman (the “Estate”), appealed an amended judgment entered after a bench trial. The Estate argued Ray lacked the capacity to contract, no valid contract for the sale of his farmstead and farmland existed, Trent Grager owed rent for the 2017 farming season, and Ray did not gift a tractor to Grager. Grager cross-appealed, arguing he was entitled to compensation for the Estate’s wrongful occupation of the farm. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed in part, concluding the district court did not err in finding Ray was capable of contracting, the 2016 agreement was a valid contract for the sale of the farmstead and farmland, Grager had no obligation to pay rent in 2017, and the tractor was gifted. The Supreme Court reversed in part, concluding the 2017 document did not supplement or alter the terms of the 2016 agreement, and Grager was entitled to compensation for the Estate’s wrongful occupation of the farm. The case was remanded for the court to determine Grager’s damages for the Estate’s wrongful occupation. View "Hartman, et al. v. Grager" on Justia Law