Attorney’s Fees Directed by the Will

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

B.D. Benoist included a provision in his will that any beneficiary who contested his will “shall pay all attorneys fees and court costs associated with the Will contest or related action.”

The will was, indeed, unsuccessfully contested by Bronwyn Parker, B.D.’s daughter and a beneficiary, and the executor demanded award of an attorney’s fee.

Before we go any further, we’ve posted twice before here about this case. One post addressed the question as to when a temporary administrator should be appointed. The second post set out the MSSC’s new rule that there is a good faith and probable cause exception to enforceability of in terrorem clauses in wills.

As to that later point, you will recall that the MSSC reversed the chancellor’s ruling that Bronwyn was disinherited because she challenged the will. Due to the fact that she acted in good faith and with probable cause to believe her position was correct, neither she nor the executor were bound by the in terrorem clause.

But what about where a will directs, as in the language above, simply that the contestant must pay the fees and court costs, without language that the challenging beneficiary will be disinherited? Can that be enforced?

Here’s what the MSSC said:

¶28. The forfeiture provision of B.D.’s will stated that if any beneficiary instituted a will contest, that beneficiary “shall pay all attorneys fees and court costs associated with the Will contest or related action.” When the chancery court initially held that the forfeiture provision in B.D.’s will was enforceable, it also concluded that Bronwyn was required to pay attorney fees for initiating the will contest. Upon granting Bronwyn’s motion to reconsider, the chancellor held that B.D.’s will could not obligate her to pay attorney fees. The chancellor reasoned that, although the “paramount duty of the court is to ascertain the intent of the testator,” the court still may not give effect to such intent if it is “contrary to law or public policy.” The chancellor reasoned that, in requiring payment of attorney fees, the testator essentially was attempting to dictate the transfer of property that was not his and was beyond his control. The chancellor analyzed Mississippi Code Section 91-5-1,12 which governs the authority of individuals to create wills, and concluded that it did not give persons power over property which was not theirs to begin with. We agree with this conclusion. Section 91-5-1 permits the testator to dispose of and “devise all the estate, right, title and interest in possession, reversion, or remainder, which he or she hath, or at the time of his or her death shall have. . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-1 (Rev. 2013). The testator is not empowered to control assets that do not belong to him or her through a will, but may control only those things “which he or she hath, or at the time of his or her death shall have. . . .” Id. This clearly does not contemplate funds of a third party over which the testator had no control during his or her life or at his or her death. Mississippi does not statutorily authorize the payment of attorney fees by an unsuccessful will contestant. Accordingly, William can prevail in his claim only if there is an alternative avenue through which an award of attorney fees is appropriate.

¶29. We review a chancellor’s determination of whether to award attorney fees under an abuse of discretion standard. Schwander v. Rubel, 221 Miss. 875, 897, 75 So. 2d 45, 54 (1954) (quoting King v. Wade, 175 Miss. 72, 166 So. 327, 330 (1936)) (emphasis added). “[W]hen there is no contractual provision or statutory authority providing for attorney’s fees, they may not be awarded as damages unless punitive damages are proper as well.” Willard v. Paracelsus Health Care Corp., 681 So. 2d 539, 544 (Miss. 1996). There is no statutory authority for a testator to require the payment of attorney fees, and Bronwyn and William were not parties to a contract which included an attorney fees provision. Bronwyn has not been subject to punitive damages, nor is she in contempt of court. The chancellor did not abuse his discretion in denying attorney fees to William. The chancellor correctly noted that Mississippi does not statutorily authorize the payment of attorney fees by an unsuccessful will contestant. All that is permissible is for the will to detail the disbursement of the testator’s property. The Legislature has not seen fit to grant testators the authority to invoke the power of the courts to compel unsuccessful contestants to pay attorney fees incurred in defending a will contest. As concluded by the chancellor, there are no means by which William can obtain attorney fees in these circumstances.

A couple of useful points in this case:

  • A testator may only direct the disposition of funds over which he had control during his life. Since an award of attorney’s fees would be a disposition of a third party’s funds, that’s outside the scope of the testator’s power.
  • There are only three avenues for a chancellor to award attorney’s fees: (1) where there is a contractual agreement for award of attorney’s fees; or (2) where there is a statute authorizing an award of attorney’s fees; or (3) where there is an award of punitive damages. Of course, attorney’s fees may be awarded on a finding of contempt, but there are statutes authorizing that.

I wonder whether language that authorized the executor to reduce the share of any unsuccessful or bad faith contestant (or contestants pro rata) by the amount of attorney fees and costs incurred by the estate in defending the will, with the amount to be adjudicated by the court, would get by?

Remember that Benoist does not do away with in terrorem clauses in our jurisprudence. It merely opens a line of attack that had heretofore been closed to Mississippi litigants. So can still use your legal creativity to help your clients come up with language that will help blunt or mitigate the attack.

 

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