Under a Minnesota statute, a personal representative, nominee, or other interested person may receive reimbursement from an estate for attorney’s fees and other expenses relating to estate litigation, if certain criteria are met. Courts construe the statute strictly, as evidenced in a recent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision discussed in this article.
In Minn. Stat. § 524.3-720, the Minnesota Probate Code addresses reimbursement of attorney’s fees and expenses in estate litigation. The section provides that a personal representative or person nominated as personal representative is entitled to payment from the estate of reasonable attorney’s fees and other expenses relating to defending or prosecuting a proceeding in good faith.
The provision also applies to an interested person who successfully opposes probate of a will or who pursues a claim that benefits the estate (as opposed to benefitting the person individually) after the personal representative refuses to do so. In the latter case, the court determines just and reasonable fees based on the benefit to the estate as the result of the attorney’s services.
In reviewing a district court decision in 2018, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld denial of attorney’s fees to a personal representative nominee on the basis that the nominee failed to request an award of fees and did not establish the good faith required by the statute. The case of In re the Estate of Anderson-Stewart, A17-1845, 2018 WL 3520835, (Minn. App. July 23, 2018), also provides an excellent illustration of estate litigation among family members, and the reasons why representation by an experienced probate litigation attorney in such matters is absolutely essential. The underlying facts of this will contest case explain how family members became adversaries in litigation over a will executed by the deceased family matriarch, LaVonne Ruth Anderson-Stewart.
LaVonne and Delbert Stewart married in 1993. Both spouses had children from prior marriages but no children together. In 2013, the spouses executed standard “married person” wills. LaVonne was diagnosed with dementia in October 2015. Then, in June 2016, three months before her death, she executed a new will changing the distribution of her estate. James Anderson, LaVonne’s son from her first marriage, was one of the beneficiaries of the 2016 will.
After LaVonne’s death, James petitioned for probate of the 2016 will. LaVonne’s surviving spouse and Debra Niemeyer, also a child from LaVonne’s first marriage, objected to probate of the 2016 will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.
Following a hearing and introduction of evidence, the district court invalidated the 2016 will on both grounds. The judge awarded attorney’s fees to the surviving spouse and Debra but not to James, who appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, challenging the district court’s findings on lack of capacity and undue influence, as well as the court’s failure to award him attorney’s fees.
Citing prior decisions, the Court of Appeals reiterated the well-established standard for appellate court review of lower court decisions. That standard provides that the appeals court reviews the lower court’s findings and conclusions only for clear error or mistake. In the absence of a clearly erroneous determination by the lower court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals will affirm the district court’s findings and conclusions.
Applying that standard, the Court of Appeals found that the evidence supported the lower court’s conclusions on lack of testamentary capacity and affirmed the district court’s holding and consequential invalidation of the 2016 will on that basis. As such, the appellate court did not review the undue influence finding.
On the issue of the district court’s denial of attorney’s fees for the appellant (James), the Court of Appeals relied on the statutory provision governing a personal representative nominee’s entitlement to attorney’s fees and specific findings of the district court. The Court stated that since James did not affirmatively request fees, the district court did not make the statutorily required finding of appellant’s good faith in defending against the proceedings. To the contrary, the district court found that appellant’s testimony was not credible and that his actions regarding estate assets lacked proper authorization. Based on the statute and district court findings, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s failure to award attorney’s fees.
While the decision in the Anderson-Stewart case is unpublished and therefore subject to the limitations stated in Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3, the analysis relating to attorney’s fee awards in estate litigation provides guidance for litigants pursuing reimbursement for attorney’s fees and expenses under the statutory provision. In order to protect the right to reimbursement, counsel for a personal representative or nominee must affirmatively request that the district court make an award pursuant to the statute and provide evidence on the record that enables the judge to make the requisite finding of good faith to support the award.
The outcome of this appeal on the issue of attorney’s fees, as well as on the other issues in the case, exemplifies the critical importance of representation by an experienced probate litigation attorney from the very beginning of any court matter involving estate issues. The record, findings, and conclusions in a district court proceeding will withstand an attempt to overturn them on appeal in the absence of a finding by the appellate court that the lower court made a clear error or mistake. On account of the appellate standard for review, establishing the basis for a favorable ruling and award of attorney’s fees at the district court level is of the utmost importance.
My practice at the Dave Burns Law Office includes all types of probate and estate litigation, including will contests arising from family circumstances. I represent beneficiaries or heirs of an estate, as well as personal representatives, in all matters involving potential court actions relating to estate or probate issues.
If you would like to discuss a situation involving a potential challenge to probate of a will or another issue relating to probate or administration of an estate, I invite you to contact me at (612) 677-8351 or by emailing email@example.com. I welcome inquiries from clients and referring attorneys throughout the State of Minnesota and am available to meet with clients in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The Dave Burns Law Office hopes you find this article helpful. But please do not rely on it as legal advice. The law changes regularly and the outcome of any legal matter depends on its unique circumstances. View full disclaimer