Can a Trial Court Intervene When the Matter Concerns a Nonintervention Estate?

Wordplay aside, the use of nonintervention clauses in an estate plan becomes an issue unto itself, when heirs disagree.

Wordplay aside, the use of nonintervention clauses in an estate plan becomes an issue unto itself, when heirs disagree.

GavelThe Washington Supreme Court ruled “In re Estate of Rathbone”that a trial court could not construe the nonintervention will independently of the personal representative, because the Trust and Estate Dispute Resolution Act (TEDRA) or other state laws provided such authority.

Nonintervention powers are the authority of a personal representative to make decisions and act to facilitate the settlement of an estate in a probate proceeding, without the need for approval from the probate court.

Todd Rathbone was named personal representative of his mother's estate in her nonintervention will. Glen Rathbone, Todd's brother and beneficiary of the will, took issue with Todd's administration of the estate and filed a petition requesting an accountancy. He then filed an action asking the trial court to construe the will in his favor. The trial court held it had the authority to construe the will under section 11.68.070and, in the alternative,TEDRA itself gave the trial court authority to construe the will. The court ruled for Glen's version of the will and overrode the interpretation of Todd, the personal representative. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and Todd appealed.

Justice Johnson wrote in the decision of the Washington Supreme Court that because the case involved a nonintervention will, respect for Ms. Rathbone's wish that a court not be involved in the administration of her estate had to frame the Court’s analysis.

Ms. Rathbone gave Todd nonintervention powers and authority to construe the will and resolve all matters pertaining to disputed issues or controverted claims.

The will provision also gave Todd the option to purchase a piece of property from her estate for $350,000. Todd exercised his option and paid $350,000 to the estate as the will instructed. The trial court found that Ms. Rathbone's intent was that Glen would receive the $350,000, if Todd elected to purchase the property and ordered Todd to construe the will in accordance with its findings, thus disagreeing with his construction of the will.

The issue was whether a statute establishes authority for a trial court to interpret a will's language overruling a personal representative's interpretation, as the trial court did in this case.

Justice Johnson wrote that generally, a superior court's authority when dealing with nonintervention wills is statutorily limited. Once a court declares a nonintervention estate solvent, the court doesn’t have a role in the administration of the estate except under narrow, statutorily created exceptions that give courts limited authority to intervene. The judge explained that the court can regain this limited authority, only if the executor or another person with statutorily conferred authority properly invokes it.

Section 11.68.070plays a limited role in the estate administrative process. The Justice said that “it does not come into play, as in this case, until the estate administrative process is completed.”

Todd argued that the authority the law gives a superior court is narrow and limited to allowing the court to approve fees and order an accounting. The Washington Supreme Court agreed.

Justice Johnson held that the facts of this case, the provisions of the will, and the nonintervention statutes support a narrow statutory interpretation. The Court found that the testator's intent here was expressly and clearly evident. The will gave Todd, the personal representative, nonintervention powers. The will also gave him authority to construe, if necessary, the provisions of the will. The will expressed Ms. Rathbone’s intent that courts not be involved in the administration of her estate. The will directed that Todd's administration of the estate not be challenged, especially by Glen. The will also contained a disinheritance clause revoking any bequest granted to any challenger to Todd's administration decisions.

Todd was successful in the action, since the Supreme Court ruled that the testator’s expressed intent was violated by the trial court’s involvement in the case, its exercise of authority and its order construing the will. The decision of the Washington Court of Appeals was reversed. The trial court’s order construing the will was vacated. The case was remanded with directions to dismiss.

If an estate plan that includes a nonintervention clause is to withstand court challenges, it’s very important that the intentions of the person are very clear.

Reference: Justia (Feb. 9, 2017) “In re Estate of Rathbone”

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