Crossroads Blues

January 27, 2020 § 5 Comments

Robert Johnson of Mississippi is widely credited as being one of the most influential blues guitarists ever. Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few, idolized him and tried to imitate his technique. He died in Greenwood on August 16, 1938, at age 27, poisoned by another man with whose wife Johnson was romantically involved.

His estate was not opened until 1989, when his son, Claud, petitioned the court to be named executor. But Claud could not benefit from his father’s musical heritage because he had never been adjudicated Johnson’s son.

Claud retained the law firm of Kitchens & Ellis to represent him in an action to be declared Johnson’s son and heir, and in all subsequent legal matters Claud would have. They entered into a contingency fee contract that included an assignment of 40% of all revenue Johnson would receive, including royalties, commissions, profits, etc., from his father’s music. After Claud succeeded in being declared Johnson’s heir, the law firm received its 40% from Claud. Kitchens & Ellis later assigned its rights to the Kitchens Law Firm, P.A.

And then Claud died on June 30, 2015. His estate was opened, and the estate continued to receive revenue from the music of the late bluesman, but did not pay Kitchens its 40%. On October 20, 2016, Kitchens filed a motion asking the court to authorize and direct the executor to turn over the 40%, and to make an accounting. The executor responded that the claim was barred because Kitchens had not probated a claim. A special chancellor ruled that the claim was not barred, and ordered the executor to deliver the funds and to account. The estate appealed.

In Estate of Johnson v. The Kitchens Law Firm, P.A., decided by the COA on August 27, 2019, the court affirmed, holding that the claim did not have to be probated. Judge Corey Wilson wrote the unanimous opinion, Lawrence not participating:

¶13. Claud’s estate first contends that the chancery court should have dismissed Kitchens’s motion to authorize and direct executor because Kitchens’s claim is time-barred. Pursuant to section 91-7-151:

All claims against the estate of deceased persons, whether due or not, shall be registered, probated and allowed in the court in which the letters testamentary or of administration were granted within ninety (90) days after the first publication of notice to creditors to present their claim. Otherwise, the same shall be barred and a suit shall not be maintained thereon in any court, even though the existence of the claim may have been known to the executor or administrator.

(Emphasis added). Section 91-7-149 provides the requisite procedures for probating a claim against a decedent’s estate. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-149; In re Estate of Lingle, 822 So. 2d 320, 322 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2002).

¶14. It is undisputed that Kitchens did not register and probate any claim against Claud’s estate in accordance with the procedural requirements of section 91-7-149. It is also undisputed that Kitchens did not probate any claim against Claud’s estate within ninety days of the first publication of notice to creditors, which occurred on September 2, 2015. But Kitchens contends that it “was not required to probate a claim because the funds due [to] it, now and in the future, are not now, nor have they ever been, part of [Claud]’s estate.” We agree.

¶15. “Section 91-7-151 has no application to a suit for possession of property by virtue of ownership.” Maxwell v. Yuncker, 419 So. 2d 580, 583 (Miss. 1982). When Claud entered the contract in 1991, he agreed to

[s]et over and assign unto said firm of Kitchens & Ellis, causes of action or rights in the amount of forty percent (40%) of any and all sums of money or other benefits which they may recover or obtain for me by virtue of, or arising from, my biological relationship to the late Robert Johnson . . . .

(Emphasis added). “A valid assignment in Mississippi is a transfer of rights or property from one party (the ‘assignor’) to another (the ‘assignee’), in which the assignor intends to vest in the assignee a present right in the thing assigned.” 1 Donald Campbell, Jeffrey Jackson & Mary Miller, Encyclopedia of Mississippi Law § 7:1 (2018). Thus, pursuant to the contract, Kitchens is the rightful owner to the funds that it claims. In other words, the funds are not, and never were, part of Claud’s estate—they are merely being wrongfully withheld, contrary to the assignment, by the estate. Because the funds are not a part of Claud’s estate, Kitchens was not required to probate its claim. See Maxwell, 419 So. 2d at 583 (holding sections 91-7-149 and 91-7-151 have no application where appellant’s claim was not for a specific money demand due or to become due but rather was an inchoate and contingent claim involving the ownership of specific property). The special chancellor therefore did not err by declining to dismiss Kitchens’s claim as time-barred under section 9-71-151. This assignment of error lacks merit.

A parting thought: It costs nothing to probate a claim, even when you aren’t required to do so.

STANDING TO FILE A CLAIM AGAINST AN ESTATE

April 2, 2013 § 3 Comments

The COA decision in Estate of Necaise: Covington v. McDaniel, decided March 12, 2013, addresses the question whether a judgment creditor of the potential heirs of an estate has standing to assert a claim against the estate.

Lawrence Covington probated a claim against the estate of Darryl Necaise, Sr., based on a $1,000,000 judgment he had obtained against three of the decedent’s heirs in the Circuit Court of Yalobusha County. The proceedings are convoluted, involve three separate appeals, all consolidated, and even a separate circuit court proceeding. For our purposes, however, we are focusing on the sole issue of Covington’s standing to assert a claim against the estate when the judgment forming the basis of his probated claim was against some of its heirs, and not against the decedent or the estate itself.

Judge Carlton, for the court, spelled out the answer:

¶23. Covington’s appeals regarding the findings of the chancery court primarily arise out of his claim to be an interested party to the probate proceedings and the contest of Darryl Sr.’s will based upon his pecuniary interest in his judgments against potential heirs of the Estate. In support of his argument, Covington relies on Mississippi Code Annotated section 91-7-25 (Rev. 2004), which states that “[i]n any proceeding to contest the validity of a will, all persons interested in such contest shall be made parties.” Significantly, Covington does not assert on appeal that a judgment was entered against the Estate or Darryl Sr., the decedent.

¶24. Relying upon precedent, this Court recognizes that “[i]nterested parties are those whose direct[] pecuniary interests will be either detrimentally or advantageously affected by the probate of the will. Included in this group will ordinarily be [the] decedent’s heirs at law, beneficiaries under earlier wills, and beneficiaries under the will being contested.” Garrett v. Bohannon, 621 So. 2d 935, 937 (Miss. 1993) (emphasis added and citation omitted). With respect to the claim asserted by Covington, we find that Covington failed to prove he possessed a direct pecuniary interest against the Estate. Moreover, the only heir named in Darryl Sr.’s will, McDaniel, never contested the will. In fact, McDaniel, as the executor, had Darryl Sr.’s will admitted to probate; she possessed no duty to notice any parties except creditors of the Estate, which she alleges she accomplished by publication as required. As previously discussed, Darryl Sr.’s former spouse abandoned any intent to contest the will admitted to probate.

¶25. Covington asserts no direct pecuniary interest in the probate of the Estate. Covington is not a creditor of the Estate and identifies no debt or expense owed to him by the Estate or Darryl Sr., the deceased. Further, Covington is not an heir-at-law of the decedent nor a named beneficiary in any will alleged to have been executed by the decedent. In fact, Covington is not a judgment creditor of the sole heir of the estate, McDaniel. Therefore, Covington fails to establish standing to assert a will contest that would never result in him being a beneficiary of the assets of the Estate. His only connection to the Estate is that he tried, yet failed, to obtain a judgment against Darryl Sr. and the Estate. As such, we find this issue to be without merit.

An interesting twist in this case is how Covington attempted to assert himself into the proceedings as to the validity and enforceability of the will itself. I had never seen a party claiming to be a judgment creditor try to assert those kinds of issues in the probate of an estate.

Chancellor Vicki Cobb apparently considered the issue of standing so clear-cut that she assessed sanctions against Covington. You might want to add the possibility of sanctions into the equation before you leap into filing something similar yourself.

CONTESTING PROBATED CLAIMS IN AN ESTATE

October 19, 2010 § 4 Comments

Section 91-7-165, MCA, allows the executor, administrator, legatee, heir or any creditor to contest a claim presented against the estate.  The statute requires notice to the claimant and a hearing.

This court requires notice on the claimant via a Rule 81 summons, returnable to a specific date and time.  Any other interested party who may have an interest contrary to the contestant should also be summoned, in this judge’s opinion.

At hearing, the burden of establishing a claim is on the claimant by clear and convincing evidence, or as one case characterized it, “by clear and reasonably positive evidence,” even though the claim has been admitted to probate by the clerk (in other words, the admission to probate of a claim does not have the same effect as admission of a will to probate). 

The decree of the court is limited to allowing or disallowing the claim, and the court can not enter a money judgment or judgment for other relief.

Appeal time runs from the date of entry of the decree allowing or disallowing the claim, and not from the date the estate is closed.

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