Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PHELPS COUNTY Honorable Ronald D.
White, Associate Circuit Judge
Steffen Rahmeyer, P.J.
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"). 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.
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.
died on March 21, 2015. No application for letters
testamentary or of administration was filed within twenty
days following his death.
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.
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
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.
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
timely appeals the judgment, raising two points. Because her
first point is dispositive, we do not reach the merits of her
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.
agree that the probate division erred.
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 ...