Estate of Hunsaker, Matter of, 97-569

Decision Date17 November 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-569,97-569
Citation291 Mont. 412,968 P.2d 281
Parties, 1998 MT 279 In the Matter of the ESTATE OF Maurice L. HUNSAKER, Deceased. Anne BARNETT, an individual, Petitioner and Appellant, v. Shorland HUNSAKER, Respondent and Cross-Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

James A. McLean, Drysdale, McLean & Nellen, Bozeman for Appellant.

Sarah Nash Zimmer, Nash, Guenther & Zimmer, Bozeman, for Respondent.


¶1 Anne Barnett (Anne) appeals from the July 17, 1997 Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order of the District Court for the First Judicial District, Broadwater County, determining that she was not the common-law wife of decedent Maurice L. Hunsaker (Maurice) and was therefore not an heir to his estate. Shorland Hunsaker (Shorland), one of Maurice's brothers, cross-appeals the District Court's determination that Maurice died intestate. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Factual and Procedural Background

¶2 Sometime in 1985, Maurice and Anne met at a restaurant where Anne worked as a waitress. At that time, Anne was married to Raymond Price; Maurice had never married. Maurice and Anne became close friends initially, but they did not share an intimate relationship until sometime later. Anne separated from her husband in December 1986 and was divorced on February 30, 1987.

¶3 After Anne separated from her husband, she moved into a mobile home that Maurice bought for her. Maurice and Anne moved her personal effects into the mobile home the week prior to Christmas 1986. Anne testified that Maurice gave her a gift on every day of that week and that, on Christmas Day, Maurice gave her an engagement ring along with a matching wedding band and asked her to marry him. Anne wore the engagement ring at times, but she did not wear the wedding band. Anne stated that she never wore the wedding band because she did not believe that she had the right to wear it since she and Maurice did not have a formal wedding ceremony.

¶4 Maurice stayed nights with Anne at the mobile home until October 1987, when they moved into Maurice's house near Toston. The title and mortgage on the house were in Maurice's name alone. Maurice and Anne lived together in the house until Maurice's death on September 27, 1996.

¶5 During their relationship, Maurice farmed and ranched at his family's ranch near Toston. Anne worked as an insurance clerk and receptionist at the Family Medical Clinic in Townsend.

¶6 Leonard Lambott (Lambott), a Toston area farmer and grain-elevator operator who knew Maurice and Anne for many years, testified at the bench trial on this matter that a sign in front of the house read, "Hunsakers, Home of the Classics" (referring to Maurice's and Anne's classic car collection). Lambott further testified that the message on the telephone answering machine, recorded by Anne, stated, "this is the Hunsaker residence."

¶7 Anne testified that she and Maurice purchased a large grandfather clock together and displayed the clock in the living room of the house. Maurice had the pendulum of the clock engraved with an "H" for Hunsaker in the center of the pendulum and an "M" for Maurice intertwined with the left side of the "H" and an "A" for Anne intertwined with the right side of the "H." Anne stated that she and Maurice were proud of the clock and showed it to people who came to the house.

¶8 Anne further testified that she and Maurice shopped, traveled and vacationed together, and went out to eat together every Friday night. In addition, Anne stated that they operated a classic car business together, took care of the yard together, and decorated the house for the Christmas season together. Anne testified that they often cooked dinner for each other.

¶9 Even though they lived together and did many activities together, Anne and Maurice kept separate bank accounts. Because Maurice had poor credit, Anne purchased many personal items for Maurice and he bought many items with Anne's credit. Anne testified that Maurice generally reimbursed her for these purchases.

¶10 Maurice and Anne owned shares of stock in two companies as joint tenants. They also owned a time-share condominium at Island Park, Idaho as joint tenants. Maurice listed Anne as the secondary beneficiary to his sister on his Department of Veterans Affairs life insurance policy. Anne was listed as Maurice's spouse on the Designation of Beneficiary forms for that policy. Although most of one form was filled in by Maurice, Anne testified that she filled in the word "spouse" on that form. Maurice had another life insurance policy that listed Shorland as the sole beneficiary.

¶11 Maurice and Anne filed separate income tax returns each year listing themselves as single instead of married. Anne testified that they filed as single persons because Maurice told her that he was in trouble with the IRS and that he did not want to get her involved with his financial problems. Anne testified that she did not know that she could have filed as married filing jointly. Gary Spitzer (Spitzer), the accountant who prepared Maurice's income tax returns until 1993, testified that Maurice did not indicate to him that Maurice was married.

¶12 Steven Shapiro (Shapiro), a Montana City attorney who represented Maurice in several matters starting in the fall of 1993, testified that he once introduced Anne to a mediator as "Annie Hunsaker, Morrie's wife." Shapiro stated that neither Maurice nor Anne corrected his introduction. Shapiro sent Christmas cards to Maurice and Anne and addressed the cards to "Maurice and Anne Hunsaker." Shapiro testified that he thought that Anne and Maurice were married and was surprised to read in Maurice's obituary that Anne's last name was not Hunsaker.

¶13 Lambott also testified that Anne and Maurice presented themselves as husband and wife and that he therefore perceived them as a married couple. Lambott further testified that Maurice referred to Anne as "my wife." Tom Stonecipher (Stonecipher), a Bozeman attorney who had represented Maurice in the past, however, testified that Lambott once stated that Maurice and Anne were not married but just "long-term boy and girlfriend."

¶14 Anne testified that she felt that she was married to Maurice during their relationship. She also testified that she thought that Maurice felt married to her.

¶15 Evidence introduced at trial showed that Anne was named as Maurice's spouse on his Department of Veterans Affairs life insurance policy, on his death certificate, and in a magazine article written about Maurice. Anne was also listed as "Anne Hunsaker" on a membership card to a classic car club and on a receipt from a store in Townsend. Additionally, Anne introduced into evidence two wedding invitations that Shorland's daughters sent to the house. Both invitations were addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Hunsaker."

¶16 Lee Stokes, a Bozeman attorney, represented a client that was purchasing land from Maurice and two of his brothers and their spouses. He testified that, in trying to make sure that the title to the land was clear, he asked Maurice if he had any premarital agreements with Anne and that Maurice responded that Anne was not his wife and that he did not involve her in business.

¶17 Shorland testified that Maurice called Anne his "sweetheart," but not his wife. Shorland also testified that he was close enough to Maurice that if Maurice had been married, he would have told Shorland. Thomas Hunsaker, one of Maurice's brothers, testified that he did not know if he considered Maurice and Anne to be married.

¶18 Maurice was listed as Anne's "significant other" on two hospital consent forms that Anne signed. One of the consent forms initially listed Maurice as Anne's "husband." However, the word "husband" was crossed out and replaced with "significant other." Betsie Rasmussen, the nurse who filled out the consent forms, testified that she filled them out with information that Anne gave her.

¶19 Shortly before his death, Maurice and Lambott had a conversation about wills. Maurice told Lambott that he wanted to leave his entire estate to Anne. Lambott advised Maurice to talk with an attorney.

¶20 On September 25, 1997, Maurice contacted Stonecipher about preparing a will. Stonecipher testified that Maurice told him that Anne was his "common-law wife" and that he wanted to leave everything to her. Stonecipher further testified that Maurice said that he did not have a will and that his family would "eat [Anne] alive" if he died without a will leaving his estate to her. Because Stonecipher usually does not prepare wills, he and Maurice decided to speak again the following week to make arrangements for the preparation of a will. However, two days after their initial conversation and before a will could be drafted, Maurice died. He was 63 years old. At the time of his death, Maurice had five surviving brothers and one surviving sister. One brother, Harper Hunsaker, died shortly after Maurice.

¶21 On October 8, 1996, the District Court appointed Anne special administrator of Maurice's estate. Anne petitioned the court on October 25, 1996, to appoint her personal representative of the estate. Anne claimed in her petition that she was Maurice's surviving spouse. On December 3, 1996, Richard Hunsaker, one of Maurice's brothers, petitioned the court to appoint an unrelated third party as personal representative of Maurice's estate or, in the alternative, to appoint "Anne Barnett, the surviving spouse of the Decedent," as personal representative.

¶22 On February 5, 1997, Shorland filed a reply to Anne's petition to be named personal representative. Shorland asserted that Anne was not Maurice's surviving spouse and that Maurice was not married at the time of his death. Shorland also asserted that a document that he filed with the District Court on October 18, 1996, was Maurice's valid, unrevoked will. Shorland requested that ...

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