Hauck v. Seright, 97-532

Decision Date11 August 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-532,97-532
Citation290 Mont. 309,964 P.2d 749
Parties, 1998 MT 198 Verna Joyce HAUCK, Plaintiff, Appellant and Cross-Respondent, v. Merle L. SERIGHT, as an individual and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Alice A. Sisson, Deceased, Defendant, Respondent and Cross-Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Rehearing Denied Sept. 3, 1998.

Robert L. Johnson, Lewistown, for Appellant and Cross-Respondent.

Jon A. Oldenburg, Leonard H. McKinney, Lewistown, for Respondent and Cross-Appellant.

TURNAGE, Chief Justice.

¶1 In this will contest, the Tenth Judicial District Court, Fergus County, dismissed Verna Joyce Hauck's claim for tortious interference with an expectancy. On Hauck's other claims, a jury found that Merle Seright unduly influenced his aunt and Hauck's adoptive mother, Alice A. Sisson, when she executed her October 30, 1992 Will, but that Sisson was free from undue influence in other transactions. The court ordered formal probate proceedings as to Sisson's October 27, 1992 Will. Hauck appeals, and Seright cross-appeals. We affirm.

¶2 Hauck raises the following issues on appeal:

¶3 1. Did the District Court err in dismissing Hauck's damage case against Seright for tortious interference with her expectancy from decedent Sisson?

¶4 2. Did the court err in adjudging that a $105,000 withdrawal from Sisson's capital and a $100,000 quasi-testamentary disposition were valid transfers?

¶5 3. Did the court err in admitting Sisson's October 27, 1992 Will to probate?

¶6 4. Did the court err in granting Seright his attorney fees and costs?

¶7 On cross-appeal, Seright raises a fifth issue, arguing that the court erred in failing to grant his motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.


¶8 In the pretrial order, the parties stipulated to the following facts:

1. Plaintiff Verna Joy Hauck resides in Seal Rock, Oregon and she is the adopted daughter of the late Alice A. Sisson. Mrs. Sisson died in Lewistown, Montana on September 30, 1995 at the age of ninety years. Defendant Merle L. Seright is a resident of Fort Benton, Montana and he is one of Mrs. Sisson's nephews.

2. Mrs. Sisson was the widow of the late Laurence R. "Ray" Sisson who died in Lewistown, Montana on May 19, 1990. Mrs. Sisson inherited all of Ray Sisson's property.

3. After Mrs. Sisson's death Merle Seright commenced informal proceedings in this court to administer her estate. The clerk appointed him personal representative under the terms of a Will he filed which was dated October 30, 1992. Merle Seright petitioned the court for an order admitting that Will to probate, and Joy Hauck contested claiming that the Will was procured by Merle Seright through undue influence. It conflicts with the provisions of a Will Mrs. Sisson executed on October 27, 1992. In an independent action Joy Hauck complains that Merle Seright interfered with her expectancy of inheritance from Mrs. Sisson, and she asks that he respond to her in appropriate damages. The Will contest and the damage action have been consolidated for trial.

¶9 At trial, Hauck testified that she had known the Sissons all her life and that she had maintained a close relationship with them for many years. After Ray Sisson died in 1990, Hauck stayed with Alice Sisson for about a month and helped with her financial and other affairs. During that visit, Sisson adopted Hauck as her daughter and granted her a power of attorney. Sisson later canceled that power of attorney when she became aware that Hauck was receiving her bank statements.

¶10 In February 1991, Sisson executed another power of attorney naming Hauck as her attorney-in-fact. In April of that year, however, Sisson again revoked Hauck's power of attorney and instead named Seright as her attorney-in-fact. Also during April of 1991, Sisson made a $100,000 account she held with the Edward D. Jones investment firm payable upon her death to Seright and his brothers and sisters.

¶11 On October 27, 1992, while Hauck was again visiting her, Sisson executed a Will in the offices of her longtime Lewistown, Montana attorneys, Wilkins & Berger. In that Will, Sisson bequeathed to Hauck 40 percent of her estate, which exceeded $400,000 in total value. Three days later, on October 30, 1992, after Hauck had left town, Seright took Sisson to the offices of another Lewistown attorney, Leonard McKinney. There, Sisson executed a Will reducing Hauck's share of her estate to $10,000 and canceling Hauck's inheritance altogether if Hauck contested the Will.

¶12 In December 1992, upon Seright's petition alleging that Sisson was incapacitated and unable to make a consistent estate plan, the District Court appointed Lewistown attorney Leonard McKinney as Sisson's legal guardian. The petition was supported by the recommendation of Sisson's physician, who stated that Sisson did not have good short term memory and was not able to perform moderately complex calculations.

¶13 Following Sisson's death in September 1995, Seright applied for probate of her October 30, 1992 Will. Hauck contested that Will. She also filed a separate action against Seright alleging that he had fraudulently represented to Sisson that Hauck was stealing from her, inducing Sisson to allow his name and those of his siblings to be placed upon her securities as beneficiaries at her death. The two matters were consolidated for trial.

¶14 Both parties presented evidence at trial that Sisson was susceptible to the influence of others in her decision making. Hauck admitted that her relationship with Sisson had cooled dramatically in the last years of Sisson's life, but she contended that this was because of Seright's improper influence upon Sisson. Seright presented witnesses who testified to the effect that Sisson distrusted Hauck and wanted to distance herself from Hauck financially as much as she could in spite of their adoptive mother-daughter relationship. Hauck contended that Seright influenced Sisson in April 1991 to make the $100,000 Edward D. Jones account payable to himself and his siblings upon Sisson's death; to execute her October 30, 1992 Will; to transfer $105,000 from her Edward D. Jones account to him and his wife in December 1992; and, in January 1993, to list him and his siblings as the beneficiaries of a $100,000 IDS investment account. Seright presented evidence that it was Hauck who was influencing Sisson to make financial decisions which she really did not want to make, and that he had merely helped Sisson to carry out her own wishes.

¶15 The court ruled that there was no evidence of undue influence as to the April 1991 transfer of Edward D. Jones funds, and did not submit that issue to the jury. In answer to special interrogatories, the jury found that Sisson was not free from undue influence by Seright when she executed her October 30, 1992 Will. The jury found, however, that Sisson was free from undue influence from Seright when she transferred her Edward D. Jones funds to him and his wife in December 1992 and when she named Seright and his siblings as beneficiaries on her IDS account in January 1993.

¶16 After trial and after the parties filed various post-trial motions, the October 27 Will was admitted to formal probate.

Issue 1

¶17 Did the District Court err in dismissing Hauck's damage case against Seright for tortious interference with her expectancy from decedent Sisson?

¶18 After Hauck presented her case in chief at trial, Seright moved to dismiss all of her claims. As to the claims for tortious interference with an expectancy, the court took the motion under advisement. At the close of the evidence, the court granted the motion to dismiss the claim for tortious interference with an expectancy as to the April 22, 1991 transaction in which Sisson transferred $100,000 into a payable-on-death Edward D. Jones account. The court stated that there was insufficient evidence to go to the jury on that claim. The court did not allow the jury to consider the tortious interference claim because "I think this is an undue-influence case."

¶19 Tortious interference with an expectancy has not heretofore been recognized as a legal theory in Montana. Where it is recognized, the tort consists of intentionally and by fraud, duress, or other tortious means preventing another from receiving from a third person an inheritance or gift that he would otherwise have received. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 774B(1977).

¶20 The elements of undue influence are: (1) a confidential relationship between the person alleged to be exerting undue influence and the testator; (2) the testator's physical condition affects her ability to withstand undue influence; (3) the testator's mental condition affects her ability to withstand undue influence; (4) the unnaturalness of the disposition shows an unbalanced mind or a mind easily susceptible to undue influence; and (5) the demands and importunities may have affected the testator, taking into consideration the time, place, and surrounding circumstances. Matter of Estate of Jochems (1992), 252 Mont. 24, 28, 826 P.2d 534, 536.

¶21 The court allowed Hauck's claims regarding the December 1992 and January 1993 transactions to go to the jury on a theory of undue influence. Hauck has not shown how it would have been to her advantage had the court instead or in addition allowed her to proceed on a theory of tortious interference with an expectancy as to those transactions. We conclude that the court did not err in ruling that this case was tried as a claim for undue influence.

¶22 The only claim which the court did not allow the jury to consider under any theory was Hauck's claim that the April 1991 transfer was improper. In reviewing a directed verdict, this Court will consider only the evidence introduced by the party against whom the directed verdict is granted. If that evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the party, tends to...

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1 books & journal articles
  • Tortious Interference With Inheritance
    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Lawyer No. 42-5, May 2013
    • Invalid date
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