Justia Trusts & Estates Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in North Dakota Supreme Court
by
This case involves a legal malpractice claim brought by Anne Fahey, Timothy Fife, and Richard Fife (Plaintiffs) against their former attorneys, Andrew Cook, Lukas Andrud, and Ohnstad Twichell, P.C. (Defendants). The claim stems from Defendants' representation of Plaintiffs in a previous case concerning the distribution of their mother's estate. The mother, Marianne Fife, owned a mineral interest in North Dakota and was a resident of Idaho when she died intestate. She had conveyed her mineral interest to her husband, Richard Fife, shortly before her death. Plaintiffs sued their father's estate, claiming their mother lacked capacity to execute the deed due to medication and undue influence from their father. The district court rescinded the deed but held that the mineral interest still passed to Richard Fife under North Dakota's intestate succession laws.The district court's decision was affirmed on appeal. Plaintiffs then initiated a malpractice action against Defendants, alleging negligence in the underlying litigation by failing to contest the validity of a quitclaim deed for their mother's interest in an Idaho home and failing to argue that their mother's estate had a cause of action against their father's estate. Plaintiffs claimed that if Defendants had taken these actions, the value of their mother's estate would have increased, and they would have received some of the minerals under intestate succession laws.The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants, concluding that they did not breach their duty to Plaintiffs and that Plaintiffs did not suffer damages caused by the alleged breach of duty. The court reasoned that even if Plaintiffs had successfully taken the suggested actions, they still would not have received their mother's mineral interests.On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on their legal malpractice claims. They contended that the court erred in concluding that their mother's estate, for valuation and distribution purposes, did not include real or personal property outside of North Dakota. They also argued that Defendants were collaterally estopped from arguing that their mother's interest in the Idaho home and personal property would never be part of the estate.The Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed the district court's judgment. The court concluded that the district court did not err in holding that collateral estoppel does not apply in this case. The court also held that the district court correctly concluded that the Idaho home would not have been part of the mother's North Dakota intestate estate because it was community property and would have passed to the father as a matter of law. Therefore, the court found that Defendants' alleged failure to challenge the Idaho quitclaim deed's validity and argue that the mother's estate had a cause of action against the father's estate did not proximately cause Plaintiffs any damages. View "Fahey v. Cook" on Justia Law

by
The case revolves around the estate of Merle Almer, who passed away in 2016. Almer owned a construction business and a farm, and his will named his daughter, Linda Moe, as the personal representative. The will contained bequests to various individuals, including a life estate in the farm and farming assets to Casey Almer, Merle Almer's grandson. The will also directed the personal representative to use harvested and unharvested grain to pay costs of administration and taxes for the estate. However, at the time of Merle Almer's death, the grain discovered in his grain bins was less than expected, leading to a dispute between the personal representative and Casey Almer.The dispute led to a lawsuit, where the personal representative accused Almer of conversion of grain and other farm assets. Almer counterclaimed with allegations of conversion and breach of fiduciary duty. The counterclaims were dismissed, and a jury found that Almer did not convert property. Almer then filed a petition alleging that the personal representative breached her fiduciary duties. The district court heard testimony and took evidence over five days.The Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that the personal representative did not breach her fiduciary duties while administering the estate. The court also found that the will's abatement provisions were ambiguous due to the will's nonstandard use of the term "specific devise." The court made findings concerning the testator's intent based on testimony from the attorney who prepared the will. The court denied Almer's application for surcharge, granted the personal representative's motion to approve final distribution, and approved approximately $760,000 in attorney’s fees. Almer appealed, challenging the court's interpretation of the will, the court’s findings concerning the personal representative’s conduct during administration, and the court’s approval of attorney’s fees. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment. View "In re Estate of Almer" on Justia Law

by
In this case, Jonathan Garaas and David Garaas, serving as co-trustees of multiple family trusts, appealed a dismissal of their complaint against Petro-Hunt, L.L.C., an oil company operating on land in which the trusts own mineral interests. The trusts claimed that Petro-Hunt had decreased their royalty interest without proper basis and sought both a declaratory judgment affirming their higher royalty interest and damages for underpayment. The district court dismissed the complaint without prejudice, stating that the trusts had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before the North Dakota Industrial Commission.The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision, stating that the trusts needed to exhaust their administrative remedies before bringing their claims to the court. The court reasoned that the issues raised by the trusts involved factual matters related to the correlative rights of landowners within the drilling unit, which fall within the jurisdiction of the Industrial Commission. The court held that the commission should first consider these issues, make findings of fact, and develop a complete record before the case proceeds to the district court. It further noted that, after exhausting their administrative remedies, the trusts could then bring an appropriate action for declaratory relief or damages in district court. View "Garaas v. Petro-Hunt" on Justia Law

by
In this case, GayLe Schleve, the personal representative of the estates of Viola J. Heath and Caleb C. Heath, appealed orders from the District Court of Dunn County, North Dakota, that granted Wells Fargo Bank's motions to vacate previous orders establishing the authority of domiciliary foreign personal representatives and letters testamentary related to the estate of Viola J. Heath, and determining heirs and successors in the estate of Caleb C. Heath.Viola and Caleb Heath were residents of Montana who owned mineral rights in Dunn County, North Dakota. After their deaths, litigation ensued over the distribution of these mineral rights. The orders being challenged in this appeal had resulted in the mineral rights being transferred to the heirs of Viola Heath.Wells Fargo, as successor to Norwest Capital Management & Trust Co., the trustee appointed in Caleb Heath's will, claimed an ownership interest in the mineral rights and challenged the transfer of those rights to the heirs of Viola Heath. Wells Fargo argued that the district court had lacked jurisdiction to issue the orders, and that the orders should be vacated because they were manifestly unjust and based on incorrect applications of the law.The Supreme Court of North Dakota held that Wells Fargo had standing to challenge the orders. The court also held that the district court had erred in ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to issue the order in the Estate of Viola J. Heath. However, the Supreme Court remanded for further determination of whether the district court had personal jurisdiction over the parties in the Estate of Viola J. Heath, and whether relief should be granted under Rule 60(b)(4) or Rule 60(b)(6).Finally, the Supreme Court held that the district court had abused its discretion in granting Wells Fargo's Rule 60(b)(6) motion to vacate the order in the Estate of Caleb C. Heath without sufficient findings related to timeliness. The Supreme Court therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "In re Estate of Heath" on Justia Law

by
The Supreme Court of North Dakota reversed a district court decision denying Chad Hanson's petition to be recognized as the heir of the late Arlen Lindberg. Lindberg died intestate, and Hanson filed a petition alleging that he was Lindberg's biological son, substantiating his claim with an affidavit from his mother and DNA testing results showing a 99.7% chance of relation to Lindberg's biological brother. The Lindberg family opposed the petition, arguing that Lindberg's parental rights were terminated when Hanson was adopted by his stepfather. The district court ruled in favor of the Lindberg family, interpreting North Dakota's Uniform Probate Code and Uniform Parentage Act to require that a paternity action commence within two years of birth, which was not the case for Hanson. However, the Supreme Court of North Dakota disagreed with this interpretation, stating that the district court had applied the law incorrectly. The Supreme Court ruled that the Uniform Probate Code allows for establishing a "genetic father" through genetic testing or the Uniform Parentage Act, and that the act of adoption does not equate to an adjudication of paternity. The case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings. View "Estate of Lindberg" on Justia Law

by
Terry Carter and Brenda Ciccone appealed a district court judgment in the informal probate of Allan Froemke’s will. Reginald Froemke, the personal representative of Allan Froemke’s Estate, Terry Carter, and Brenda Ciccone were Allan Froemke’s children. Reginald moved the district court to determine heirs, compute the distribution of the Estate’s shares, determine debts owed by heirs to the Estate, allow the personal representative to sell property, and approve the personal representative’s inventory. The court held an evidentiary hearing and issued findings, an order for judgment, and a judgment. Carter and Ciccone argued the district court lacked jurisdiction over a contract for deed involving Carter. They further argued the court erred in: (1) finding Ciccone owed five thousand dollars to Allan Froemke’s Estate; (2) its evidentiary rulings; (3) failing to address several pending issues; and (4) finding against partitioning property. Finding no reversible error, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Estate of Froemke" on Justia Law

by
Michael Ewing, in his capacity as personal representative, appealed a district court’s judgment, amended judgment, and order on motion to show cause. Ewing was the personal representative of the estate of Chiyoko Ewing, his mother. Chiyoko died in 1989 leaving a will devising all of her property in equal shares to her four children: Ewing, Jeffery Ewing, Sherry Ewing, and Nancy Burkhart. At the time of her death, Chiyoko owned a home in Grand Forks as well as various items of personal property located within the home. Following her death, Jeffery lived in and maintained the home, paid the real estate taxes and the mortgage, and made substantial improvements to the home. Jeffery died in 2019. Ewing filed an “Inventory and Appraisement” identifying the property owned by Chiyoko at the time of her death. An evidentiary hearing was held to determine ownership of the property. The court found the siblings agreed they did not want to sell the home to a stranger. The issues of whether oral agreements between Jeffery and the siblings were contested. In March 2021, the district court entered a judgment, finding Jeffrey's estate owned the home. Ewing appealed. The North Dakota Supreme Court dismissed the appeal concluding the administration of the estate was not complete because the personal property was not addressed. In January 2022, another evidentiary hearing was held to address ownership of the items of personal property identified on the inventory list. While it was disputed at the evidentiary hearings, the district court found the siblings already divided the personal property amongst themselves by agreement. The district court entered an amended judgment finding all items of personal property, with two exceptions not at issue here, were assets of Jeffery's estate, and ordered Ewing to return those items to the estate. Jeffrey's estate moved to hold Ewing in contempt for failing to return the ordered items to the estate. This motion was granted, and Ewing appealed, arguing the court erred in finding an oral contract between the parties, mutual assent on all terms of the contract, and partial performance of an oral agreement sufficient to remove it from the statute of frauds. Ewing also argued the district court’s findings of fact regarding ownership of personal property, whether the real property was maintained, responsibility for administration costs, and the award and offset of damages were clearly erroneous. Finding no reversible errors, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Estate of Ewing" on Justia Law

by
Johnny Beach, the former personal representative of the estate of Louis Lindbo, appealed a district court order denying his motion for payment of personal representative fees. The North Dakota Supreme Court concluded the court abused its discretion in denying the motion. View "Estate of Lindbo" on Justia Law

by
Angus Kennedy owned real property and mineral interests in McKenzie County, North Dakota. In 1960, Angus and his wife, Lois, executed two deeds conveying the surface and “excepting and reserving unto the parties of the first part, their heirs, successors or assigns, all right, title and interest in and to any and all . . . minerals in or under the foregoing described lands.” Lois did not own an interest in the property when Angus and Lois Kennedy executed the deeds. Angus died in 1965, and Lois died in 1980. Angus and Lois did not have children together. Angus had six children from a previous marriage. Angus' heirs executed numerous mineral leases for the property. Lois had one child, Julia Nevin, who died in 1989. In 2016 and 2017, Julia Nevin’s surviving husband, Stanley Nevin, executed mineral leases with Northern Oil and Gas, Inc. In 2018, Stanley sued the successors in interest to Angus, alleging Lois owned half of the minerals reserved in the 1960 deeds. In response, the Angus heirs claimed Angus did not intend to reserve any minerals to Lois because she did not own an interest in the property conveyed in the 1960 deeds. The district court granted Northern Oil’s motion to intervene. Northern Oil appeals the quiet title judgment deciding Northern Oil did not own mineral interests in the McKenzie County property, arguing the district court erred in concluding the deeds at issue were ambiguous as to whether Angus intended to reserve minerals to his wife, Lois. Finding no reversible error in the trial court judgment, the North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed. View "Nevin, et al. v. Kennedy, et al." on Justia Law

by
In 2017, Michael Tharaldson died and a probate action was opened to administer his estate. Tharaldson was unmarried and had three children, including E.M. The district court found he died intestate. In 2019, Bell Bank filed this action petitioning for a determination of trust beneficiaries and approval of asset distribution. Bell Bank claimed the sole beneficiary was Michael Tharaldson’s brother, Matthew Tharaldson. E.M. objected to the petition. E.M. appeals the ultimate order finding Matthew Tharaldson was the sole beneficiary of the Michael J. Tharaldson Irrevocable Trust Agreement II (“Trust II”) and was entitled to the trust assets. E.M. argues he was a beneficiary under the Michael J. Tharaldson Irrevocable Trust Agreement (“Trust I”), Trust I was unlawfully merged with Trust II, the trustee engaged in illegal trust decanting, and he was entitled to attorney’s fees. The North Dakota Supreme Court affirmed, concluding Matthew Tharaldson was the sole beneficiary under the plain language of either trust, and E.M. was not entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. View "Matter of Michael J. Tharaldson Trust" on Justia Law