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Harris v. Davis

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division

November 4, 2019

CYNTHIA C. HARRIS, Appellant,
v.
ALICE DAVIS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Melvin Harris, Deceased, CHASITY L. BOETTCHER, JANE M. McKNIGHT, KIMMIE L. HENSON, SALLY A. CARROLL, MELVIN L. HARRIS, and MARY S. KINNARD, Respondents.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PHELPS COUNTY Honorable Ronald D. White & Honorable Kenneth G. Clayton, Judges. [1]

          DANIEL E. SCOTT, P.J.

         Cynthia Harris appeals a probate judgment and order directing distribution of estate property over her objections.

         We are to sustain the probate division's judgment unless it is not supported by substantial evidence, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law. In re Hoffman, 23 S.W.3d 646, 648 (Mo.App. 2000). Because the procedural background is complex, we will describe relevant facts and proceedings in the context of various points raised on appeal.[2]

         Complaints about Appointment of Personal Representative (Points 1 & 2)

         Background

         Melvin Harris ("Decedent") lived on the farm where he was raised and that was passed down to him from his father. His wife Cynthia ("Wife") moved out of the marital home in 2013 after Decedent was diagnosed with brain tumors. Within months, Decedent required full-time care which his daughter provided until he died in March 2015.

         In December 2015, Decedent's sister Anna Mae Edgar filed a § 473.097 small-estate case and timely presented Decedent's will and codicil which later were admitted to probate.[3] In February 2016, Wife moved to "convert" that small-estate case to full administration. Wife also filed surviving-spouse claims against which Decedent's heirs asserted the defense of § 474.140 abandonment. See Estate of Heil v. Heil, 538 S.W.3d 382, 385 (Mo.App. 2018).[4]

         In August 2016, the court held an evidentiary hearing on abandonment, then concluded that it could not convert a small-estate case and denied that motion without discussing § 474.140. On appeal in Harris I, we found that Wife's motion to convert met all requirements for a timely § 473.020 petition; thus we reversed and remanded to open an estate and appoint an administrator.

         On remand, the probate division ordered full administration and directed Ms. Edgar, whom Decedent's will named to serve as personal representative, to apply for letters within 30 days. Ms. Edgar did so and was appointed to administer the estate independently which she did until her June 2019 death and replacement by Alice Davis as substitute administrator.

         Point 1

         Wife complains that the probate division lacked authority[5] to appoint Ms. Edgar because her application for letters was, to quote Point 1, "more than one year after the death of [Decedent], contrary to Section 473.020, and there is no exception (equitable or otherwise) to this deadline."

         We disagree. Harris I construed Wife's motion to convert as a timely § 473.020 petition and remanded for the probate division to open an estate and appoint an administrator. This compelled the probate division, by statute, to determine who should be directed to apply for letters (§ 473.020.3, with Ms. Edgar being that person per § 473.110.1) and issue appropriate orders including, inter alia:

An order directing the person found by the court to be entitled to the issuance of letters testamentary or of administration to apply for and qualify for such letters within such time as is allowed by the court, and in default of such timely application and qualification, upon application, the court shall issue ...

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