In re Estate of Novakovich

Decision Date08 December 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03-112.,03-112.
Citation2004 WY 158,101 P.3d 931
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE OF Lance Roy NOVAKOVICH. Eugene John Stringari, appellant (Petitioner), v. Diane M. Taylor, Personal Representative of the Estate of Lance Roy Novakovich, Appellee (Respondent).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellant: Edward G. Luhm of Scott, Shelledy and Luhm, PC, Worland, WY. Argument by Mr. Luhm.

Representing Appellee: Kendal R. Hoopes and Jay A. Gilbertz of Yonkee & Toner, LLP, Sheridan, WY. Argument by Mr. Hoopes.

Before HILL, C.J., and GOLDEN, LEHMAN, KITE, and VOIGT, JJ.

LEHMAN, Justice.

[¶ 1] Eugene John Stringari (Stringari) appeals a district court order denying his petition to reopen the probate proceedings of the estate of Lance Roy Novakovich (the decedent). Stringari claims that he was a reasonably ascertainable creditor, but that he was not given actual notice of the probate proceedings and, therefore, he is entitled to make his claims against the estate. Concluding that the district court applied an improper standard, we reverse and remand the district court's order denying the petition.

ISSUES

[¶ 2] Stringari sets out three issues for review:

1. Whether the district court erred by failing to permit Appellant to conduct discovery pursuant to the Wyoming Rules of Civil Procedure prior to its determination that Appellant was not a "reasonably ascertainable creditor" of this estate and that Appellant was not entitled to equitable relief due to the "peculiar circumstances" of the case, pursuant to W.S. § 2-7-703(c)?
2. Whether the district court erred in determining that Appellant was not a "reasonably ascertainable creditor" of said estate as intended by W.S. § 2-7-703(c)(ii), to whom actual notice of the pending estate should have been supplied pursuant to W.S. § 2-7-205(a)(ii)?
3. Whether the district court erred in determining that Appellant as creditor of said estate was not entitled to equitable relief due to "peculiar circumstances" pursuant to W.S. § 2-7-703(c)(i)?

Diane M. Taylor (Taylor), personal representative of the decedent's estate, phrases the issues as:

I. Was the Appellant a person authorized by the Wyoming Probate Code to reopen the Estate of Lance Roy Novakovich?
A. Whether the district court sitting in probate correctly determined that the Appellant was not a "reasonably ascertainable" creditor entitled to actual notice of the probate proceedings and that the Appellant was barred from bringing a claim against the Estate by the nonclaim statute.
B. Whether the Appellant was entitled to equitable relief due to "peculiar circumstances" pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-703(c)(i).
II. Was the Appellant entitled to discovery pursuant to the Wyoming Rules of Civil Procedure prior to the adversary proceeding?
FACTS

[¶ 3] Stringari was involved in an automobile accident with the decedent sometime around July 29, 1999. The decedent died of causes unrelated to the accident on May 14, 2000. His will was admitted to probate; and his daughter, Taylor, was appointed personal representative. In her final report and petition to distribute the estate, Taylor affirmed that she had given proper notice of probate to creditors as required by statute, including general notice through publication in a local newspaper of general circulation. See Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-201 (LexisNexis 2003). On April 24, 2001, the district court issued an order approving Taylor's final report and decreeing final distribution of the estate. Taylor was discharged as personal representative by court order on May 11, 2001.

[¶ 4] Stringari filed a Petition to Reopen Estate on July 9, 2002. Stringari claimed that although he was a reasonably ascertainable creditor of the estate and entitled to actual notice of probate by the personal representative, Taylor did not mail him notice of probate as required by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-205(a)(ii). He asked the court to grant him relief pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-703(c)(i) and (c)(ii) and reopen probate, allowing him to file a claim against the estate and commence discovery.

[¶ 5] Taylor responded with an objection that Stringari was not a reasonably ascertainable creditor. She requested a hearing to determine the validity of his claim. In his response to the objection, Stringari claimed that a hearing was premature and that in order for the process to have any meaning he was entitled to pursue discovery as specified in the Wyoming Rules of Civil Procedure. Stringari argued that discovery was necessary to establish what efforts the personal representative had made to ascertain the identity of the estate's creditors. In an affidavit attached to her pretrial brief, Taylor replied that she recalled a conversation she had with her father in which he described an automobile accident he had been in as a "fender-bender," and that there were no injuries. Taylor also recalled seeing a broken headlight on her father's car at that time but she considered the incident, which took place about a year before her father's death, to be minor and had completely forgotten it until Stringari's claim was filed.

[¶ 6] A hearing on Stringari's petition was held before the district court. The court denied the petition on the basis that: (1) Stringari had to make a serious showing of an entitlement to actual personal notice of the probate proceedings before the court would allow him to engage in discovery prior to a hearing under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-703(c); (2) the fact that the personal representative had knowledge that the decedent had been involved in a "fender-bender" approximately one year before his death, was not sufficient for the court to conclude that the personal representative should have discovered that Stringari may have wanted to bring a claim against the estate; (3) Stringari was not a claimant whose identity was reasonably ascertainable by the personal representative and he was not entitled to actual notice of the probate proceedings; and (4) Stringari was the type of claimant for whom notice by publication of the probate proceedings in a newspaper of general circulation in the county where the probate proceedings were located was appropriate.

[¶ 7] On appeal, Stringari challenges the court's denial of his petition to reopen the estate and his request for pre-hearing discovery.

DISCUSSION

[¶ 8] The Wyoming Probate Code provides a unified procedure that is to be liberally construed and applied to: promote the simplification and clarification of the law concerning the affairs of decedents and other protected persons; discover and effectuate the intent of a decedent in the distribution of his property; promote a speedy and efficient system for liquidating a decedent's estate and distributing it to his/her successors; and facilitate the use of certain trusts. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-1-102(a)(i) through (iv) (LexisNexis 2003). The district courts of the state have exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters relating to the probate and contest of wills and testaments, the granting of letters testamentary, and of administration, settlement, and distribution of a decedent's estate. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-2-101 (LexisNexis 2003). The district courts have the authority to appoint a fiduciary, including a personal representative, as an executor to administer the estate. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-1-301(a)(xv) and (xvi); Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 2-3-101 et seq. (LexisNexis 2003).

[¶ 9] The probate code establishes the various procedures that must be completed in the administration of an estate. One such procedure relates to notifying creditors of the probate proceedings. Upon admission of a will to probate and the issuance of letters, if appointed, a personal representative is required to publish a notice of the admission of the will or estate to probate and of their appointment as personal representative once a week for three consecutive weeks in a daily or weekly newspaper of general circulation in the county in which the probate is pending. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-201 (LexisNexis 2003). The notice is required to be substantially in the form set out in the statute and must include language informing creditors that any claims against the decedent must be filed with the necessary vouchers within three months from the date of the first publication of the notice or be forever barred. Id. A copy of the notice published in the newspaper must be mailed to each creditor of the decedent whose identity is "reasonably ascertainable by the personal representative within the time limited in the notice to creditors," not later than thirty days prior to the date three months after the first publication of the notice in the newspaper. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-205(a)(ii) (LexisNexis 2003).

[¶ 10] The Wyoming Probate Code then requires a creditor to file any claims it may have against an estate with the clerk of court within the time limited in the notice to creditors. Any claim not so filed is forever barred. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-703(a) (LexisNexis 2003). The personal representative is required to state in writing whether the creditor's claim is allowed or rejected. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-712(a) (LexisNexis 2003). If a claim is rejected, in whole or in part, the personal representative must notify the creditor by certified mail. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-712(d). A creditor whose claim has been rejected then has the option of bringing suit against the personal representative but must do so within thirty days of the date when the notice of rejection was mailed or the claim is forever barred. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-718 (LexisNexis 2003).

[¶ 11] After a personal representative has fully administered an estate by collecting all monies due, paying all debts and distributing all assets to the entitled parties, he may petition the probate court for a final discharge. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-7-814 (LexisNexis 2003). If the court is satisfied that the personal representative has fully performed all acts lawfully required of him,...

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