Estate of Hill, In re

Decision Date06 March 1997
Docket NumberNo. 96-235,96-235
Citation281 Mont. 142,931 P.2d 1320
PartiesIn re the ESTATE OF Lou E. HILL, Deceased.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Duncan A. Peete, Moulton, Bellingham, Longo & Mather, Billings, for Appellant.

Mark D. Parker, Nicole A. Temkin, Parker Law Firm, Billings, for Respondent.

HUNT, Justice.

Appellant Louanne Woodford (Louanne) appeals the decision of the Sixteenth Judicial District Court, Garfield County, holding that

two disputed bank accounts were the property of Lou E. Hill's probate estate, and further holding that Lou E. Hill (Hill) had not intended to leave the disputed accounts to Louanne as his joint tenant with right of survivorship. We reverse and remand.

ISSUES

The following issues are presented on appeal:

1. Did the District Court err in concluding that the disputed bank accounts were assets of Hill's probate estate and not joint accounts with rights of survivorship between Hill and Louanne?

2. Did the District Court err in concluding that the Inventory and Appraisement of Hill's estate constituted a judicial admission by Louanne that the disputed accounts were assets of Hill's probate estate?

FACTS

In 1984, Hill opened a joint checking account with his wife, Margaret, at the Garfield County Bank. After Margaret died in 1985, Hill executed a new signature card for the account with his daughter, Louanne. The new signature card was signed by both Hill and Louanne as authorized signatories and listed the account as a joint account with right of survivorship. Also in 1985, Hill and Louanne opened a second checking account at the First National Bank in Miles City. The signature card for this account also was signed by both of them and indicated the account was a "joint" one.

Louanne testified that the accounts were for her father's use during his lifetime. She further testified that her father told her that, in the event of his death, she should pay his immediate expenses from these accounts and then do as she pleased with the balance of the money.

In December 1990, Hill died testate in Garfield County. His daughter, Louanne, and his son, Phil Hill (Phil) were named by his will as co-personal representatives. Phil and Louanne were also the major beneficiaries of Hill's will. After Hill's death, Louanne closed the Garfield County Bank joint account and deposited the remaining funds into an individual account. She also executed a new signature card at the First National Bank in Miles City, changing the joint checking account at that bank to an individual account as well.

During preparations for the probating of Hill's estate, a dispute arose regarding how the two bank accounts should be treated. The attorney handling the estate notified Louanne and Phil that he needed to know whether the accounts were estate property or Louanne's property. The treatment of the accounts dictated whether they would be included in the estate's inventory or not. Louanne contended that her right of survivorship meant the funds in the accounts belonged to her, not to the estate. Phil contended that Hill had not intended to gift Louanne with the accounts prior to his death and, therefore, the accounts were properly included as part of Hill's estate.

The attorney presented the parties with copies of the estate inventory which did not include the accounts as part of the estate. At some point, the attorney redrafted the inventory and moved the accounts from the joint property schedule to the estate property schedule. Both Phil and Louanne initialed the changes and signed the inventory, which was subsequently filed with the District Court.

Phil then petitioned the District Court for an accounting of the location and use of the accounts, which he contended were estate property. In response, Louanne moved to dismiss Phil's petition, asserting that the accounts were originally jointly owned by her and her father and, since his death, were owned by her alone. She therefore asserted that the estate was not entitled to an accounting regarding the accounts. After a hearing, the District Court concluded that the nature of the accounts was ambiguous, justifying an inquiry into Hill's actual intent. It further concluded that Louanne's name

was placed on the accounts for convenience's sake only, and that the accounts were estate property. Louanne appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court reviews a district court's findings of fact to determine whether they are clearly erroneous. In re Estate of Parini v. Montana Department of Revenue (1996), 279 Mont. 85, ----, 926 P.2d 741, 743, 53 St.Rep. 1062, 1063 (citing Daines v. Knight (1995), 269 Mont. 320, 324, 888 P.2d 904, 906). This Court reviews a district court's conclusions of law to determine whether the court's interpretation of the law was correct. Parini, 926 P.2d at 743 (citing Stratemeyer v. Lincoln County (1996), 276 Mont. 67, 79, 915 P.2d 175, 182).

As a general rule, construction and interpretation of written agreements is a question of law for the court to decide. Klawitter v. Dettmann (1994), 268 Mont. 275, 281, 886 P.2d 416, 420 (citing First Security Bank of Anaconda v. Vander Pas (1991), 250 Mont. 148, 152-53, 818 P.2d 384, 387). Likewise, it is a question of law whether ambiguity exists in a written agreement. Klawitter, 886 P.2d at 420 (citing Audit Services, Inc. v. Systad (1992), 252 Mont. 62, 65, 826 P.2d 549, 551).

DISCUSSION
1. Did the District Court err in concluding that the disputed bank accounts were assets of Hill's probate estate and not joint accounts with rights of survivorship between Hill and Louanne?

The disposition of the disputed bank accounts in this case depends on how the accounts are classified, whether as joint tenancies with rights of survivorship; as tenancies in common; or as personal accounts of Lou E. Hill. The District Court concluded the accounts were the personal property of Lou E. Hill and, therefore, became part of his estate upon his death.

The creation of a joint tenancy (or joint interest) with right of survivorship is governed by statute. Section 70-1-307, MCA, provides:

A joint interest is one owned by several persons in equal shares by a title created by a single will or transfer, when expressly declared in the will or transfer to be a joint tenancy or when granted or devised to executors or trustees as joint tenants.

Under the plain language of the above statute, a right of survivorship may only be created by the inclusion of an express declaration indicating the parties' intent to create it. A tenancy in common is also statutorily defined:

Every interest created in favor of several persons in their own right, including husband and wife, is an interest in common unless acquired by them in partnership for partnership purposes or unless declared in its creation to be a joint interest, as provided in 70-1-307, MCA.

Section 70-1-314, MCA.

When the classification of a bank account is in dispute, the court first looks at the signature card accompanying the account in order to resolve the problem. Casagranda v. Donahue (1978), 178 Mont. 479, 483, 585 P.2d 1286, 1289 (citing State Board of Equalization v. Cole (1948), 122 Mont. 9, 195 P.2d 989). The court must then determine whether the signature card complies with the statutory requirements, set out above, for creating a joint tenancy with right of survivorship or a tenancy in common. Estate of Lahren (1994), 268 Mont. 284, 286, 886 P.2d 412, 413.

a. The Garfield County Bank account.

The signature card for the Garfield County Bank account lists the account in the name of Lou E. Hill alone. However, both Hill and Louanne signed as authorized signatories and the account is denominated as a "joint" account. In addition, the Garfield County Bank signature card explicitly set forth a paragraph describing the account as a "joint account, with right of survivorship." Both Hill and Louanne again signed the signature card below this paragraph, acknowledging that they had read and understood it.

The District Court, however, focused on the fact that the account was listed in the name of Lou E. Hill alone and, on that basis, determined that the signature card was ambiguous. As noted above, the determination of whether an agreement is ambiguous is a question of law which this Court reviews for correctness. Klawitter, 886 P.2d at 420. Given the statutory parameters for the creation of a joint tenancy with right of survivorship, we conclude that the District Court's determination of ambiguity was incorrect.

Section 70-1-307, MCA, requires an express declaration of the intent to create a joint tenancy. The Garfield County Bank signature card expressly declared that the account created was a joint tenancy with right of survivorship. Both Hill and Louanne signed the signature card below the paragraph setting forth this declaration. In so doing, they both indicated that they understood and agreed that the account should carry a right of survivorship. The language used could hardly be clearer, and the failure of the bank to list the account in both their names cannot overcome it. Since the signature card followed the statutorily mandated procedure for creating a joint tenancy with right of survivorship, there was nothing left for the court to construe. Therefore, the District Court's determination of ownership of the Garfield County Bank account is reversed.

b. The First National Bank of Miles City account.

Like the Garfield County Bank account signature card, the First National Bank of Miles City signature card was marked as a "joint" account. But unlike the other account's signature card, the signature card for the First National Bank of Miles City account carried the names of both Hill and Louanne. And, unlike the other account, the Miles City account lacked any specific language indicating that the account was a joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The only indication of intent is...

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  • Stevens v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp..
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • December 30, 2010
    ...discovery, pleadings, opening statements, direct and cross-examination, as well as closing arguments.” In re Est. of Hill, 281 Mont. 142, 149–50, 931 P.2d 1320, 1325 (1997) (quoting Kohne v. Yost, 250 Mont. 109, 112, 818 P.2d 360, 362 (1991)). In Montana, a judicial admission “has a conclus......
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    ...made outside the litigation proceedings are not made to the court, and thus cannot be judicial admissions. See In re Estate of Hill, 281 Mont. 142, 150, 931 P.2d 1320, 1325 (1997) (an inventory and appraisement of an estate was not a judicial admission because it was not made in the course ......
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    ...opening statements, direct and cross-examination, as well as closing arguments.’ ” Novartis, ¶ 74 (quoting In re Est. of Hill, 281 Mont. 142, 149–50, 931 P.2d 1320, 1325 (1997)). “A judicial admission has a conclusive effect upon the party who makes it, and prevents that party from introduc......
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    ...OF REVIEW ¶ 21 The construction and interpretation of a written agreement are questions of law. See, e.g., In re Estate of Hill (1997), 281 Mont. 142, 145, 931 P.2d 1320, 1323 (citations omitted). It is also a question of law whether ambiguity exists in a written agreement. See Estate of Hi......
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