Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates
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This case involved a wrongful-death claim filed by Michael Rondini ("Rondini"), as personal representative of the estate of Megan Rondini ("Megan"), to recover damages for the death of his daughter Megan, who committed suicide almost eight months after she was allegedly sexually assaulted while enrolled as a student at the University of Alabama. Rondini sued Megan's alleged assailant, Terry Bunn, Jr., in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division, claiming that Bunn's alleged sexual assault and false imprisonment of Megan proximately caused her death. After Bunn moved for summary judgment, the federal court certified a question to the Alabama Supreme Court on whether Rondini's wrongful-death claim was viable under Alabama law. Both Rondini and Bunn framed their arguments around the Alabama Supreme Court's decision in Gilmore v. Shell Oil Co., 613 So. 2d 1272 (Ala. 1993). The Alabama Supreme Court responded by stating suicide would not, as a matter of law, absolve an alleged assailant of liability. “The statement in Gilmore that suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law, was made in the context of a negligence case and does not apply in an intentional-tort case involving an allegation of sexual assault. … traditional negligence concepts like foreseeability and proximate cause, which form the backbone of the negligence analysis in Gilmore, have a more limited application in intentional-tort cases.” The Court held that a wrongful-death action could be pursued against a defendant when there is substantial evidence both that defendant sexually assaulted the decedent and that the assault was a cause in fact of the decedent's later suicide. “In such cases, it is unnecessary to analyze whether the decedent's suicide was a foreseeable consequence of the sexual assault; liability may attach without regard to whether the defendant intended or could have reasonably foreseen that result.” View "Rondini v. Bunn" on Justia Law

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Terry Weems, as the personal representative of the estate of Terry Sutherland ("Terry"), deceased, the proponent of what was purported to be the will of Terry's mother, Gladys Elizabeth Stidham Sutherland ("Elizabeth"), appealed a probate court judgment entered in favor of Terry's siblings, Angela Long and Gary Sutherland, who contested that purported will. Elizabeth died in 2016. Angela petitioned to admit to probate a will her mother executed in 2002 which divided Elizabeth's property equally among her three children. The 2002 will named Angela as the executor of the estate. Shortly thereafter, Terry petitioned the probate court to enter an order admitting a different will to probate that, he said, Elizabeth had executed in 2013 ("the 2013 will"); he also requested that the probate court issue letters testamentary to him as the executor of Elizabeth's estate. That will revoked "all prior wills and codicils" and named Terry as the executor of the estate. In August 2016, Angela petitioned the circuit court to remove the "administration" of Elizabeth's estate from probate court. In October 2017, after determining that its jurisdiction had not been properly invoked, the circuit court issued an order remanding the proceedings relating to Elizabeth's estate back to the probate court. Thereafter, the probate court entered an order acknowledging receipt of the proceedings from the circuit court. In September 2018, Terry died and Terry Weems was appointed to be the personal representative of his estate. At the time of Terry's death, neither the 2002 will nor the 2013 will had been admitted to probate and letters testamentary had not been issued. In 2019, the probate court received testimony and evidence from the parties, and issued an order finding that the procurement and execution of the 2013 will was unduly influenced by Terry. It also admitted the 2002 will to probate and issued letters testamentary to Angela. Thereafter, Weems appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, finding that the probate court was required to transfer the contest after a demand to transfer was made; without it, the court had no jurisdiction to hold a hearing or to issue its order. Because the probate court lacked jurisdiction in this case, its judgment was void. View "Weems v. Long et al." on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Meg Jamison ("Meg"), individually and as next friend of her husband, John W. Jamison III ("John"), sought a writ of mandamus to direct the Jefferson Probate Court to set aside its order automatically renewing temporary letters of guardianship and conservatorship regarding John. The Alabama Supreme Court recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted trials in all courts, including the probate court, and it appreciated the constraints the pandemic placed on all courts to process cases in a timely manner. "This does not, however, excuse the probate court from acting in accordance with the strictures of 26-2A-107(a). Moreover, the probate court issued automatically renewing temporary-guardianship and temporary-conservatorship orders even before the pandemic. Accordingly, the probate court's May 20, 2020, order violated 26-2A-107(a)." The mandamus petition was granted, and the probate court was directed to set aside its automatic renewal appointing a temporary guardian. View "Ex parte Meg Jamison." on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Shirley Temple Carr Ralph ("Mrs. Ralph") executed a will naming Philip Kelsoe ("the proponent") the executor and sole beneficiary of her estate. estate. Mrs. Ralph's sister, Nel Brock, contested the will, arguing that Mrs. Ralph had lacked the mental capacity to execute the will and that the will was the product of undue influence on the part of the proponent. The Morgan Circuit Court entered a summary judgment in favor of the proponent, and Brock appealed. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, finding the circumstances surrounding the timing of the execution of the will, the proponent's dominion over the will, and Dr. Campbell's testimony regarding Mrs. Ralph's deteriorating physical and mental state, a jury could have inferred the proponent was unduly active in the procurement of the will. Dr. Campbell testified that, around the time Mrs. Ralph executed the will, her health had deteriorated both mentally and physically, she was under the influence of "mind-altering" medications, and she was easily susceptible to being taken advantage of. Accordingly, Brock presented substantial evidence of all the elements necessary to submit her claim of undue influence to a jury. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Brock v. Kelsoe" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates
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Lawrence Taylor appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in favor of Charles Hanks in Taylor's will contest. Taylor challenged the will of his father, Billy Lee Hite, alleging, among other things, that Hite had lacked testamentary capacity when he made the will, which did not mention Taylor. Because the Alabama Supreme Court concluded that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether Hite had testamentary capacity, judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Taylor v. Hanks" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Crag Dyas and Dyas, LLC appealed a circuit court's orders disposing of some of their claims against some of the defendants below. Because those orders did not constitute a valid, final judgment that would support an appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed this appeal. View "Dyas v. Stringfellow et al." on Justia Law

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Thomas Martin ("Thomas") appealed a circuit court judgment dismissing his declaratory-judgment action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Henry Thomas Martin ("Henry") died and was survived by his wife, Sheila Martin ("Sheila"), and his two children, Thomas and Dawn Michelle Martin ("Dawn"). Among other dispositions, Henry's will created a testamentary trust for the benefit of Dawn ("the testamentary trust"). The will directed the trustee to hold 25% of Henry's residuary estate in trust and to pay Dawn, in estimated equal monthly installments, the net income from the trust along with any surplus net incomes. Following Henry's death, Dawn died without a will. Henry's will was silent, however, about what happened to the principal of the testamentary trust upon Dawn's death. While the probate court proceedings were pending, Thomas filed a complaint at circuit court seeking a judgment to declare: (1) his interest in reversions held by Henry's heirs; (2) the proper distribution of any property held in such an reversionary trust; and (3) the various rights of the parties to Henry's assets at the time of Henry's death. Shiela, as personal representative to the estate, moved to dismiss Thomas' suit, arguing the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed the circuit court, finding that although certain probate courts in Alabama were vested with jurisdiction to hear cases involving testamentary tryst, the probate court in this case was not one of them. As a result, only the circuit court held subject-matter jurisdiction to consider arguments about whether the testamentary trust continues or has terminated. View "Martin v. Martin" on Justia Law

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Eleanor Williams appealed a probate court order denying her request for redemption of certain real property. In 2003, the State purchased property located in Birmingham ("the property") at a tax sale after the then owners, Benjamin and Marzella Rosser, failed to pay ad valorem taxes. The State sold the property in 2016 for $1,000 to Waynew Global Holdings, LLC ("WGH"). In February 2017, WGH sold the property to Mari Properties, LLC ("Mari"), for $5,000, and Mari recorded the deed to the property. Williams claimed that she inherited the property from the Rossers in or around March 2003. In September 2017, Williams petitioned for redemption of the property under section 40-10-120, Ala. Code 1975, with which she tendered $1,100. The probate court granted Williams petition, thereby ordering Mari to compute and submit the amount of those items and stated that, upon receipt of those figures, the probate court would enter an amendment to the order and direct payment by Williams. The probate court did not vest title of the property in Williams. Mari, however, moved to vacate the probate's order, arguing the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the redemption petition because, it argued, Williams was required under 40-10-120 to redeem the property through statutory redemption within three years of the May 13, 2003, tax sale. Mari contended in the motion that the only redemption process available to Williams was judicial redemption under section 40-10-83, Ala. Code 1975, and that the circuit court had exclusive jurisdiction over that process. Despite Mari's filing of the notice of appeal to the circuit court, the parties continued filing documents in the probate court. By March 6, 2020, the probate court reversed course, vacating its earlier judgment in favor of Williams for redemption under 40-10-120, and holding that Williams should have filed her redemption petition with the circuit court. The Alabama Supreme Court determined that once Mari appealed to the circuit court, the probate court's jurisdiction was divested, making all orders filed after Mari's circuit court suit void. View "Williams v. Mari Properties, LLC" on Justia Law

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Margaret Stockham, as personal representative of the estate of Herbert Stockham, deceased ("Stockham"), appealed a circuit court judgment denying her motion for reimbursement for costs and attorney fees. The costs and fees at issue in this appeal related to a lawsuit brought by a beneficiary of three trusts that each held preferred and common stock in SVI Corporation, on whose board of directors Stockham served. Judgment was entered in favor of Stockham and other defendants. Stockham filed a motion for reimbursement of fees and expenses for defense of the beneficiary's action against Herbert Stockham. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the circuit court erred indenting Stockham's motion for reimbursement of costs and attorney fees based on the beneficiary's newly-revised argument Herbert had willfully and wantonly committed material breaches of the trusts. Accordingly, the Court reversed the circuit court's judgment and remanded this case for the circuit court to reconsider Stockham's motion for reimbursement without consideration of the beneficiary's newly raised arguments. View "Stockham v. Ladd" on Justia Law

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Robert Segrest, Jr. appealed the dismissal of his petition to contest the validity of the will of Robert C. Segrest. In his will, Robert bequeathed to his wife, Patricia Segrest, a defeasible life estate in his real property. That bequest was defeasible because Robert provided that should Patricia leave the property for a period of more than 6 months the real property would pass to his son, John Paul Segrest. Robert also left certain personal property, but no real property, to his son, Robert, Jr. Robert died on November 24, 2018. On March 7, 2019, the probate court admitted Robert's will to probate and granted letters testamentary to Patricia, the personal representative. On April 26, 2019, Robert, Jr. filed his "Notice of Intent to file Will Contest." Robert, Jr., maintained that the will was invalid because, he said, at the time Robert executed the will Robert was the subject of "much undue influence" by Patricia and lacked testamentary capacity as a result of his failing health and strong medications. The dispositive question in this appeal was whether the circuit court obtained jurisdiction over the will contest. Robert, Jr., after Robert's will had been admitted to probate and letters testamentary had been issued but before a final settlement of the estate was reached, moved the circuit court for the removal of the administration of Robert's estate from the probate court to the circuit court, and he subsequently filed a petition to contest the will in the circuit court case addressing the administration of Robert's estate. The Alabama Supreme Court found no error in removal of the administration of the estate from the probate to the circuit court. Therefore, the pendency of Robert's estate in circuit court, in conjunction with the filing of the will contest in the case administering Robert's estate, invoked the circuit court's jurisdiction to determine the validity of Robert's will. The judgment of the circuit court was reversed, and this case was remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Estate of Segrest" on Justia Law