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In re Estate of Harris

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division

September 13, 2017

In the Estate of: MELVIN HARRIS, Deceased.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PHELPS COUNTY Honorable Ronald D. White, Associate Circuit Judge

          Nancy Steffen Rahmeyer, P.J.

         Anna Mae Edgar ("Sister") initiated this "small-estate proceeding" under section 473.097 in the Probate Division of the Circuit Court of Phelps County ("the probate division") following the death of her brother, Melvin Harris ("Decedent").[1] Thereafter, Cynthia Harris ("Appellant"), Decedent's wife, filed a verified "Motion to Convert to Full Estate and Require Supervised Administration of Decedent's Estate" ("the Motion to Convert"). The probate division entered a judgment denying the Motion to Convert, concluding it had no statutory authority to convert a small-estate proceeding into one with supervised administration. We reverse and remand.

         "Our review of whether a party has complied with a statute in pleading for relief is a question of law, which we review de novo'' Estate of Tiefenbrunn, 484 S.W.3d 907, 908 (Mo.App. S.D. 2016). For the purposes of this review, we view as true the facts alleged in the pleading. Id.

         Decedent died on March 21, 2015. No application for letters testamentary or of administration was filed within twenty days following his death.

         On December 23, 2015, Sister filed in the probate division an "Affidavit to Establish Title of Distributees of Decedent where Total Estate is not more than $40, 000.00" alleging the criteria for a small-estate proceeding under section 473.097. She also filed Decedent's will and codicil ("Decedent's Estate Documents"), which were later admitted to probate.

         On February 5, 2016, Appellant filed the Motion to Convert. Among other things, it listed Decedent's name, address of last residence, and date of death; stated that Sister had possession of Decedent's Estate Documents; and listed the names, addresses, and relationships of Decedent's heirs known to Appellant, including herself (as Decedent's surviving spouse), Sister, and Decedent's children. As relief, the Motion to Convert asked the court to "open a full estate" and sought the appointment of the Phelps County Public Administrator to administer Decedent's estate. Appellant additionally filed against Decedent's estate an election of surviving spouse claim, a homestead allowance claim and an exempt property allowance ("the Contested Claims").

         On August 25, 2016, the probate division held an evidentiary hearing to receive evidence concerning whether Appellant's inheritance rights were barred by section 474.140. Decedent's children and Sister (collectively "Respondents") alleged that Appellant abandoned Decedent by dwelling apart from him for a year before his death- an allegation Appellant denied. The probate division also requested briefing on the issue of whether it had the authority to convert a small-estate proceeding into one with supervised administration. In Appellant's suggestions to the probate division, she explained why her Motion to Convert ought to be treated as a section 473.020 petition to open a full probate estate.

         The probate division ultimately entered a judgment denying the Motion to Convert, denying the Contested Claims and directing the clerk to process the case as a small-estate proceeding under section 473.097. It found and concluded that: (1) "[t]his case was filed pursuant to Section 473.097 RSMo. as a small estate distributing [D]ecedent's assets without letters of administration"; (2) "[a]ll motions and the application filed by [Appellant] were contested"; (3) [t]here are no procedures set forth under the statute for the adjudication of contested claims in a small[-]estate proceeding"; (4) there is "no authority in the Probate Code or anywhere else in Missouri law that allows a person to seek, or the Court to order, the conversion of a small[-]estate proceeding into an estate with supervised administration"; and (5) section 473.020 "is the exclusive remedy if an interested party desires to force full administration of a decedent's estate."

         Appellant timely appeals the judgment, raising two points. Because her first point is dispositive, we do not reach the merits of her second point.

         Appellant's first point claims the probate division:

erred by denying [Appellant]'s motion to open a full estate, because the [probate division] was authorized to open a full estate pursuant to Section 473.020, in that [Appellant] was an "interested person" (i.e., surviving spouse); no application for letters testamentary (or of administration) had been filed pursuant to Section 473.110 within twenty days of [D]ecedent's death; [Appellant]'s motion was written, signed, and verified; it included all the information required by Section 473.020 (i.e., decedent's name, address, date of death; name and address of personal representative designated in the will; name, address, and relationship to decedent of his heirs); it was filed within a year of [D]ecedent's death; and it qualified as a "petition" as the term is used in Section 473.020, or else should have been treated as such in light of cases such as Sprung v. Negwer Materials, Inc., 727 S.W.2d 883 (Mo. banc 1987), Missouri Dept. of Soc. Serv. v. Roper, 174 S.W.3d 563 (Mo. App. W.D. 2005), and Moxness v. Hart, 131 S.W.3d 441 (Mo. App. W.D. 2004).

         We agree that the probate division erred.

         We begin by addressing Appellant's argument that her failure to denominate the Motion to Convert a "petition" had no effect on whether it qualified as a petition for section 473.020 purposes. Appellant is correct. "No technical forms of pleading or motions are required." Rule 55.04; see also Sprung v. Negwer Materials, Inc., 727 S.W.2d 883, 889 (Mo. banc 1987) (concluding "the trial court had jurisdiction to treat defendant's Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment on equitable grounds as an independent suit in equity, provided the Motion sufficiently pleaded grounds for equitable relief"). Thus, having ...


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