Vatne v. Vatne (In re Vatne), 82417-1-I

CourtCourt of Appeals of Washington
Writing for the CourtBowman, J.
PartiesIn the Matter of the Estate of RICHARD H. VATNE, Deceased. v. KATARINA VATNE, Respondent. RYAN VATNE, Appellant,
Docket Number82417-1-I
Decision Date13 June 2022

In the Matter of the Estate of RICHARD H. VATNE, Deceased.

RYAN VATNE, Appellant,
v.

KATARINA VATNE, Respondent.

No. 82417-1-I

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

June 13, 2022


UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Bowman, J.

Ryan Vatne appeals the trial court's order dismissing his petition to set aside his father's will in a probate action. Ryan[1] claims the court erred when it determined his will contest was time barred. We affirm.

FACTS

Richard Vatne died on May 9, 2020. Richard executed a "Last Will and Testament" (Will) the summer before he died. The Will appointed Richard's adult daughter Katarina Vatne as the personal representative (PR) of the Estate of Richard H. Vatne (Estate). The Will also named Katarina as the sole heir. It identified Katarina's son Dylan Vatne and Richard's adult son Ryan as contingent beneficiaries.

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The court admitted the Will to probate on July 17, 2020 and recognized Katarina as the Estate's PR. In that capacity, Katarina published a "Probate Notice to Creditors" but did not identify Ryan as a potential heir or send him notice. Ryan discovered the probate action in September 2020. He then petitioned to set aside the Will on October 1, 2020. Ryan claimed that Richard suffered from dementia and that Katarina and Richard's wife Sharon Vatne unduly influenced his father to exclude him from the Will.

On January 8, 2021, Katarina in her role as PR of the Estate moved under CR 12(b)(6) to dismiss Ryan's petition, arguing that he failed to timely serve her with notice and that the petition was now time barred. In response, Ryan filed a "Declaration of Service" stating that on October 1, 2020, "I personally served Katarina Astrid Vatne, by handing it to her." Ryan did not identify what "it" was. Ryan also filed a declaration of nonservice by a process server. The process server stated that he received the petition to set aside the Will on December 17, 2020 and described several unsuccessful attempts to serve Katarina with the petition between December 19 and 30.[2] In reply, Katarina maintained that Ryan never served her with the petition and that she did not avoid the process server.

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She also explained that their family dispute had become so contentious that she was afraid of Ryan.[3]

The trial court considered the declarations and heard arguments on February 2, 2021. It granted the Estate's motion to dismiss the Will contest with prejudice. The court determined that Ryan did not provide adequate proof of service because his Declaration of Service did not "identify what documents he allegedly served" on Katarina and it was "not properly sworn." The court also concluded that under CR 4(c), Ryan could not lawfully serve the Estate because he was a party to the action. Finally, the court determined that as much as Ryan claimed Katarina evaded service, he had sufficient alternative means of service available that he chose not to use. The court awarded Katarina as PR of the Estate reasonable attorney fees and costs.

Ryan appeals.

ANALYSIS

Ryan argues the trial court erred in concluding his Will contest was time barred because he lawfully served the Estate with notice. In the alternative, he contends the trial court should have tolled the statute of limitations so he could cure any service defects. We disagree.

Under CR 12(b)(6), a defendant may move to dismiss when pleadings do not state a claim on which the court can grant relief. Kinney v. Cook, 150 Wn.App. 187, 191-92, 208 P.3d 1 (2009). We review CR 12(b)(6) dismissals de novo. Trujillo v. Nw. Tr. Servs., Inc., 183 Wn.2d 820, 830, 355 P.3d 1100 (2015).

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But when, as here, the trial court considers materials outside the pleadings, we treat the CR 12(b)(6) motion as a summary judgment motion under the standards of CR 56. Berst v. Snohomish County, 114 Wn.App. 245, 251, 57 P.3d 273 (2002); CR 12(c).

We review a trial court's summary judgment order de novo. Zonnebloem, LLC v. Blue Bay Holdings, LLC, 200 Wn.App. 178, 182, 401 P.3d 468 (2017). We view all facts and reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. Summary judgment is appropriate if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.; CR 56(c).

A will contest is a purely statutory proceeding, so provisions of the applicable statute govern our review. In re Kane's Estate, 20 Wn.2d 76, 83, 145 P.2d 893 (1944); In re Estate of Van Dyke, 54 Wn.App. 225, 228, 772 P.2d 1049 (1989). Interpretation of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo, but when a statute is "clear on its face," it is "not subject to judicial interpretation." Cascade Floral Prods., Inc. v. Dep't of Labor & Indus., 142 Wn.App. 613, 618, 177 P.3d 124 (2008).

RCW 11.24.010 provides only a limited opportunity for interested parties in probate actions to contest a will:

If any person interested in any will shall appear within four months immediately following the probate or rejection thereof, and by petition to the court having jurisdiction contest the validity of said will, or appear to have the will proven which has been rejected, he or she shall file a petition containing his or her objections and exceptions to said will, or to the rejection thereof. . . .
For the purpose of tolling the four-month limitations period, a contest is deemed commenced when a petition is filed with the
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court and not when served upon the personal representative. The petitioner shall personally serve the personal representative within ninety days after the date of filing the petition.[4] If, following filing, service is not so made, the action is deemed to not have been commenced for purposes of tolling the statute of limitations.
If no person files and serves a petition within the time under this section, the probate or rejection of such will shall be binding and final.

The language of RCW 11.24.010 is "unambiguous," so the statute "requires no construction." In re Estate of Jepsen, 184 Wn.2d 376, 380, 358 P.3d 403 (2015). As a result, we strictly enforce the requirements under RCW 11.24.010 for commencing will contests. Id. at 381.

1. Proper Service of the Will Contest

Ryan argues he lawfully served the Estate with notice of his petition to set aside the Will through the Estate's PR, Katarina. He contends that nothing in the plain language of RCW 11.24.010 says service needs to be made by a nonparty and that CR 4(c) does not apply.

Proper service of process is essential to invoke personal jurisdiction over a party to a will contest. In re Estate of Kordon, 157 Wn.2d 206, 210, 137 P.3d 16 (2006); In re Marriage of Markowski, 50 Wn.App. 633, 635-36, 749 P.2d 754 (1988). The petitioner carries the initial burden to prove sufficient service. Streeter-Dybdahl v. Nguyet Huynh, 157 Wn.App. 408, 412, 236 P.3d 986 (2010).

The interpretation of a court rule is a question of law we review de novo. Cascade Floral Prods., 142 Wn.App. at 618. We interpret court rules the same way we interpret statutes, looking to the rule's plain language to determine its

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meaning. Buckner, Inc. v. Berkey Irrigation Supply, 89 Wn.App. 906, 913-14, 951 P.2d 338 (1998). We give effect to the plain meaning of a court rule by considering the text, surrounding context, and related provisions. Dan's Trucking, Inc. v. Kerr Contractors, Inc., 183 Wn.App. 133, 139, 332 P.3d 1154 (2014). A rule's plain meaning governs our interpretation unless it is ambiguous. WESCO Distribution, Inc. v. M.A. Mortenson Co., 88 Wn.App. 712, 715, 946 P.2d 413 (1997).

The Civil Rules govern superior court procedure "in all suits of a civil nature whether cognizable as cases at law or in equity." CR 1. The rules "supersede all procedural statutes" that may conflict unless the rules are inconsistent with "statutes applicable to special proceedings." CR 81.

CR 4(c) provides:

Service of summons and process, except when service is by publication, shall be by the sheriff of the county wherein the service is made, or by the sheriff's deputy, or by any person over 18 years of age who is competent to be a witness in the action, other than a party.

The plain language of CR 4(c) prohibits a party to an action from serving summons and process. Nothing in RCW 11.24.010 conflicts with this rule. Indeed, our Supreme Court has recognized that chapter 11.24 RCW implicitly adopts the requirements of CR 4(c). See Kordon, 157 Wn.2d at 213 ("While [the notice requirement] of RCW 11.24.020 imposes no explicit statutory time limit on the issuance of a citation, it implicitly adopts the requirements of the Superior Court Civil Rules and Title 4 RCW governing civil procedure."). Because Ryan was a party to his petition, he could not lawfully serve Katarina with the Will

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contest himself. The trial court did not err in determining that Ryan's Declaration of Service did not establish proper service of his petition to set aside the Will.

2. Tolling the Statute of Limitations

In the alternative, Ryan argues that the trial court should have tolled the 90-day statute of limitations under RCW 11.24.010 so...

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