Failure to Join Necessary Parties

July 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dorothy True died in 2014, at age 100. Her husband had predeceased her. She was survived by her four children: Ann Schmidt; Mary Hegwood; John True, who died after Dorothy’s death; and Jim True.

Jim filed to admit Dorothy’s eight-page holographic will to probate. Ann and Mary petitioned the chancery court to contest the will based on some formal irregularities. Following a hearing, the chancellor ruled that the will was a valid holographic will. It appears that Ann and Mary had proceeded against the executor and anyone else who had entered an appearance. But the estate of John, and some other devisees, as well as some heirs of the decedent, were not made parties. Ann and Mary appealed.

The COA reversed in the case of In the Matter of the Last Will and Testament of True: Schmidt and Hegwood v. True, handed down May 23, 2017, Judge Wilson writing for the court:

¶7. On appeal, Ann and Mary argue that the chancery court lacked jurisdiction because necessary parties were not joined. Unfortunately, we must agree. Section 91-7-25 of the Mississippi Code Annotated provides that “[i]n any proceeding to contest the validity of a will, all persons interested in such contest shall be made parties.” Our Supreme Court has made clear that this requirement is both mandatory and jurisdictional:

We have consistently held that the statutory mandate is jurisdictional and the court has no power to proceed with the contest until all interested parties are joined. [Robert A.] Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi, § 8–4, p. 180 (1988) states:

[T]he Legislature has provided that all interested persons must be made parties to the will contest. This requirement is jurisdictional. The Court has no power to proceed with a will contest, if any of the interested parties are not before the court. If the court does proceed the decree is invalid. It does not bind anyone, including those who participated in the contest. Moreover, the right to appeal on the basis of nonjoinder is not waived by the failure to plead it in the trial court.

Interested parties are those whose direct, pecuniary interests will be either detrimentally or advantageously affected by the probate of the will. Included in this group would ordinarily be a decedent’s heirs at law, beneficiaries under earlier wills, and beneficiaries under the will being contested. (emphasis added)

. . . .

One of the primary purposes of the statute is the fervent desire to avoid multiple litigation, and the court’s interest in consistent, efficient and final settlement of controversies. In Moore v. Jackson, 247 Miss. 854, 860, 157 So. 2d 785, 787 (1963), we stated:

The court cannot properly entertain a contest of the will without having before it all the parties interested in such contest. It was error to proceed without having them before the court. “There ought to be only one contest of the will, and, if the parties are not before the court when the will is being contested, of course their rights could not be affected by such contest.” This Court has consistently followed that interpretation in other cases.

. . . .

[S]uch parties were necessary, indispensable parties to the contest of the will. The court was without power to proceed without them.

To grant validity and credence to [a] court’s action in proceeding with [a will] contest without joinder of all interested parties would undermine the legislative mandate of [section] 91-7-25. In Estate of Schneider, 585 So. 2d 1275, 1277 (Miss. 1991), we had the occasion to reflect on Moore and stated:

In Moore this Court held that a chancery court did not have the authority to hear a will contest until “all persons interested” were made parties.

. . . .

Moore remains good law insofar as it holds trial proceedings must be held in abeyance until all necessary parties are joined in a suit contesting a will. Garrett v. Bohannon, 621 So. 2d 935, 937-38 (Miss. 1993) (internal citations omitted). The Court held that a judgment entered in a will contest “absent joinder of all necessary parties is void” and “must be set aside.” Id. at 938. In both Garrett and Moore, supra, the Supreme Court made it absolutely clear that although a failure to join a necessary party may be waived in some types of cases, it cannot be waived in a will contest; it may be raised for the first time on appeal, even by a party who participated below and failed to join the missing parties. See id. at 937-38; Moore, 247 Miss. at 787-88; 157 So. 2d at 861-63.

¶8. Returning to the present case, it is evident that we must reverse and set aside the judgment below because all necessary parties were not joined. John’s estate and Jamie are entitled to inherit under the contested will but were not joined. John’s estate and Frances’s two daughters were entitled to inherit under the law of intestate succession but were not joined. All were interested parties within the meaning of section 91-7-25 and Supreme Court precedent.

¶9. On appeal, Jim argues that his sisters waived this issue, that the missing parties’ interests were adequately represented, and that their joinder would not have made the slightest difference. [Fn omitted] We are sympathetic to these arguments. However, our Supreme Court has held specifically and repeatedly that the statutory requirement cannot be waived because it is both mandatory and jurisdictional. Its decisions do not reflect careless or imprecise use of the term “jurisdictional.” [Fn omitted] Rather, the point has been made and reaffirmed with deliberation and clarity over the course of many years. As such, any relaxation of or exception to this requirement must come from the Supreme Court or the Legislature.

¶10. Accordingly, the judgment rendered by the chancellor absent joinder of all interested parties is void and must be set aside. The case is remanded for joinder of all interested parties pursuant to the statutory mandate. Garrett, 621 So. 2d at 938.

So, who were the unjoined interested parties who were necessary to jurisdiction in this case? Note at ¶8 that the COA finds both the unjoined devisees and the unjoined heirs as necessary for jurisdiction. That’s because if the will is set aside, the heirs would stand to inherit.

This one is on the lawyers. It’s not the judge’s job to investigate and inquire about who should be made parties in a case such as this.

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