The Limits of In Terrorem

May 21, 2019 § 1 Comment

Back in 2014, the MSSC tacked on a good faith exception to in terrorem clauses in wills and trusts. The case was Parker v. Benoist, and you can read a post about it at this link.

Fast forward to 2019, and the in terrorem issue was once again before the appellate courts, this time the COA, and this time with a peculiar set of facts.

Joan Roosa, widow of Colonel Stuart Roosa, an astronaut on the Apollo 14 moon mission, executed her will in 2002. She followed with two codicils in 2004 and 2007. The 2002 will bequeathed her estate among all of her children and grand children. The 2007 codicil left everything to her daughter Rosemary. The 2002 will included an in terrorem clause.

The original will was admitted to probate, and shortly after Rosemary submitted the two codicils. The other children and grandchildren (led by Joan’s son Christopher) contested the validity of the second codicil charging that Rosemary had exercised undue influence. They also contended that Rosemary had triggered the forfeiture provision of the in terrorem clause.

A jury was empaneled to consider the issue of devisavit vel non as to the second codicil. It returned a verdict finding it not to be valid.

On the issue of forfeiture, the chancellor ruled that Rosemary had acted in good faith and denied the request that she be deemed to have forfeited her bequest under the will.

Christopher appealed on several issues, but for our purposes we will focus on the chancellor’s ruling on the forfeiture.

The COA affirmed in Estate of Roosa: Roosa v. Roosa, decided April 23, 2019. Judge McCarty wrote the opinion for the court:

¶8. The chancery court found that Rosemary should not forfeit her share of her mother’s estate due to attempting to probate the second codicil. Christopher argues that the forfeiture provision should be enforced against Rosemary because she did not act in good faith when submitting the second codicil for probate. In response, Rosemary argues that submitting a codicil for probate is not contesting the will, so the forfeiture provision is not triggered at all. Alternatively, Rosemary contends that the forfeiture provision is not applicable since she submitted the second codicil in good faith.

¶9. An in terrorem clause in a will acts to frighten a beneficiary that any benefit they might receive will be forfeited if they contest or otherwise dispute the validity of the will. See Taylor v. Rapp, 124 S.E.2d 271, 272 (Ga. 1962). Joan’s will contained just such a forfeiture provision. It read in relevant part:

If any beneficiary hereunder shall contest the probate or validity of this Will or any provision thereof, or shall institute or join in (except as a party defendant) any proceeding to contest the validity of this Will or to prevent any provision thereof from being carried out in accordance with its terms (regardless of whether or not such proceedings are instituted in good faith and with probable cause), than all benefits provided for such beneficiary are revoked and such benefits shall pass to the residuary beneficiaries of this Will (other than such beneficiary) in the proportion that the share of each such residuary beneficiary bears to the aggregate of the effective shares of the residuary.

¶10. The forfeiture clause explicitly states that “regardless” of whether a beneficiary starts proceedings “in good faith and with probable cause” that they will be forfeited from benefitting under the estate. During the life of the litigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court declared forfeiture provisions like this unenforceable as a matter of law. See Parker v. Benoist, 160 So. 3d 198, 205 (¶15) (Miss. 2015). The Court held that “[a] strict interpretation of no-contest provisions in wills would hamper courts’ goal of determining what is, once and for all, the will of the testator,” and that “[a] bona fide inquiry into the validity of the will should not be defeated by language contained in the will itself.” Id. at 206. As a result, if a will contained a forfeiture provision, it also had to have a requirement that it would only be enforced if it had a good faith exception. Id.

¶11. Rosemary’s will contained the exact same forfeiture provision that the Supreme Court held unenforceable in Parker. Id. at 203 (¶9). As a result, the chancery court found that “as a matter of law the [forfeiture] clause in this case is unenforceable because it fails to contain a good faith exception.” This does not delete the forfeiture provision but instead reforms it to include an exception for good faith actions by beneficiaries. Id. at 205-06 (¶¶12-15).

¶12. The first question we must resolve is whether the forfeiture clause even applies to Rosemary. Her argument on appeal is that it cannot be applied since she did not contest the will per se but instead only submitted the second codicil for probate. However, the plain language of Joan’s will captures more conduct than simply contesting the will. The forfeiture clause applies when any beneficiary tries to “prevent any provision [of the will] from being carried out in accordance with its terms . . . .” The second codicil Rosemary submitted to probate dramatically changed the amounts her siblings would take under their mother’s will (among other significant changes). Under the express language of the forfeiture provision in Joan’s will and the specific nature of the second codicil, we find that the forfeiture provision is applicable to Rosemary.

¶13. This does not end the inquiry, as we must determine whether Rosemary acted in good faith in submitting the second codicil for probate. In Parker, our Supreme Court noted that the evidence was sufficient for it to determine good faith and probable cause, rather than remand for the chancery court to conduct an inquiry. Id. at 206-07 (¶16). Likewise, we will determine if sufficient evidence supports Rosemary’s claim that she submitted the second codicil in good faith and based on probable cause. In the context of a will contest, “[p]robable cause exists when, at the time of instituting the proceeding, there was evidence that would lead a reasonable person, properly informed and advised, to conclude that there was a substantial likelihood that the challenge would be successful.” Id. at 206 (¶15) (quoting Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers § 8.5 cmt. c. (2003)). “The determination of good faith and probable cause should be inferred from the totality of the circumstances.” Id.

The court went on to analyze the facts and concluded that Rosemary had acted in good faith, affirming the chancellor.

This case is a reminder of two points: (1) that an in terrorem clause is enforceable if it includes a good faith provision; and (2) that if an in terrorem clause does not include good faith language the court will reform it to include a good-faith exception.

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.

 

In Terrorem Now has an Exception

September 4, 2014 § 5 Comments

In terrorem clauses, as you will recall dimly from law school, are provisions in wills and trusts that prohibit any beneficiary who contests the instrument from taking anything through it, in effect creating a forfeiture. They are designed to be a potent deterrent to litigation among the beneficiaries.

Mississippi has long adhered to the rule that, unless a particular provision is contrary to law, a testator or settlor is allowed to make any provisions for disposition of his property that he sees fit to make, including in terrorem clauses.

Here is a specimen in terrorem clause from a will:

If any beneficiary hereunder (including, but not limited to, any beneficiary of a trust created herein) shall contest the probate or validity of this Will or any provision thereof, or shall institute or join in (except as a party defendant) any proceeding to contest the validity of this Will or to prevent any provision thereof from being carried out in accordance with its terms (regardless of whether or not such proceedings are instituted in good faith and with probable cause), then all benefits provided for such beneficiary are revoked and such benefits shall pass to the residuary beneficiaries of this Will. . . .

That language was the subject of litigation in the MSSC case of Parker v. Benoist, decided by the MSSC on August 28, 2014.

William Benoist had admitted the 2010 will of his father, B.D. Benoist, to probate. It included the in terrorem language set out above. William’s sister, Bronwyn, who was a co-fiduciary with William over some of their father’s assets, filed a will contest charging undue influence, and asking the court for an accounting, to void any benefits William received as a result of his undue influence, and for equitable relief.

Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict that, although there was evidence of a confidential relationship, there was no evidence of undue influence. The chancellor then ruled that the in terrorem clause was valid and enforceable, and that, as a result, Bronwyn took nothing under the will. Bronwyn appealed.

In a case of first impression, the MSSC reversed the chancellor’s enforcement of the in terrorem clause. This language is from ¶ 1:

In this appeal, we must determine whether Mississippi law should recognize a good faith and probable cause exception to a forfeiture in terrorem clause in a will. We hold that it should, and that Bronwyn has sufficiently shown that her suit was brought in good faith and was founded upon probable cause.

At ¶ 8, the court, in an opinion written by Justice Kitchens, said that “We hold that such a provision is unconstitutional under Mississippi’s Constitution, void as against public policy, and fundamentally inequitable, and we join the large number of jurisdictions who permit a good faith and probable cause exception to forfeiture clauses in wills.”

The opinion goes on to say that such clauses frustrate the fundamental purpose of courts, which is to detemine the truth and to decide whether or not a will is valid, contrary to the Mississippi Constitution’s guarantee of the right of access to the courts. Although forfeiture provisions may serve the useful purpose of discouraging and punishing persons from seeking unjustified enrichment and corecive settlements, they go too far when they deprive the court of its duty to determine the validity of a donative transfer. The solution is to allow a good faith and probable cause exception. This is what the court said at ¶ 14:

… The will of the testator should control, but courts exist to determine whether the testator’s will is a valid reflection of the testator’s wishes. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “probate” as a “[c]ourt procedure by which a will is proved to be valid or invalid. . . .” Black’s Law Dictionary 1081 (5th ed. 1979). By definition, probating a will is proving that it is valid. This must occur through litigation. A strict interpretation of no-contest provisions in wills would hamper courts’ goal of determining what is, once and for all, the will of the testator. A bona fide inquiry into the validity of the will should not be defeated by language contained in the will itself.  We hold that, in Mississippi, forfeiture provisions in wills are enforceable unless a contest is brought in good faith and based on probable cause. “Probable cause exists when, at the time of instituting the proceeding, there was evidence that would lead a reasonable person, properly informed and advised, to conclude that there was a substantial likelihood that the challenge would be successful.” Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers at § 8.5 cmt. c. The determination of good faith and probable cause should be inferred from the totality of the circumstances. [Emphasis added] 

The bottom line in this case is that, although in terrorem clauses can still be used in wills and trusts, they may now be overcome and adjudged unenforceable if subjected to challenges found to be made in good faith and based on probable cause. And the right to have a court scrutinize the validity of the will can not be thwarted by the language of the will. These are important points of law on which to advise your clients when drafting donative instruments.

In this case, the court found that Bronwyn did have probable cause because: she understood her parents’ previous intentions from prior wills and discussions she had had with them; the 2010 will was unknown to her and contradicted her prior understanding; her father had been in failing health complicated by alcoholism and use of pain killers around the wtime he executed the 2010 will; he was taking medication for cognition problems; large withdrawals were made from his accounts that went directly to William; and he conveyed large tracts of real estate to William around the time of making the 2010 will. The 2010 circumstances occurred while B.D. was in William’s care. There was no evidence of bad faith on Bronwyn’s part in bringing her suit.

By the way, I got a thrill out of ¶ 12 of the court’s opinion, where Justice Kitchens invokes maxims of equity and actually quotes from Griffith’s Mississippi Chancery Practice.

There are some other interesting aspects to this case, including: the award of attorney’s fees from the estate to defend the will; the denial of an award of attorney’s fees against Bronwyn; and whether William should have been disqualified and removed as executor. Each of those deserves its own, separate post. Until then, you can read the court’s opinion for yourself.

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