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Jones v. Brewster

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 15, 2019

Steven Christopher JONES
Tammy BREWSTER and Jeffrey Eugene Brewster

Page 855

          Appeal from Colbert Circuit Court (CV-16-39). Jacqueline M. Hatcher, Judge

         Andrew D. Dill of Wilmer & Lee, P.A., Huntsville; and Tom Minetree of The Elder Law Practice of Tom Minetree, Sheffield, for appellant.

          W. Brent Woodall, Tuscumbia, for appellee.


         STEWART, Justice.

          Steven Christopher Jones ("Chris Jones") appeals from a judgment of the Colbert Circuit Court ("the circuit court") in favor of Tammy Brewster and Jeffrey Eugene Brewster in a will contest filed by Chris Jones concerning the will of his father, Mike Jones. Because the circuit court’s judgment is void for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, we dismiss the appeal.

          Facts and Procedural History

          Mike Jones died on August 23, 2015. On August 7, 2015, 16 days before his death, Mike Jones executed a will devising all of his property, except $ 100, to the Brewsters, who were Mike Jones’s neighbors. The will provided that Chris Jones would receive $ 100 "and absolutely nothing more of any kind or nature." Mike Jones also appointed Tammy Brewster as the executrix of his estate. On August 28, 2015, the Colbert Probate Court ("the probate court") appointed an administrator ad colligendum "to collect, protect, and preserve the goods and chattels of the deceased[’s] estate and ascertain the indebtedness of the deceased." On September 2, 2015, Tammy Brewster filed in the probate court a petition seeking an order granting her letters testamentary as the executrix of Mike Jones’s estate; on September 4, 2015, Chris Jones filed a petition requesting that the probate court grant him letters of administration.

         On October 23, 2015, Chris Jones filed a will contest in the probate court alleging

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that the Brewsters had coerced and had exerted undue influence on Mike Jones to procure the August 7, 2015, will. Contemporaneously with the complaint, Chris Jones filed in the probate court a motion to transfer the will-contest proceedings to the circuit court pursuant to § 43-8-198, Ala. Code 1975. The probate court set the matter for a hearing on November 16, 2015. On September 21, 2016, the probate court certified the probate-court record. According to the case-action summary in the circuit court, the proceedings were docketed in the circuit court on September 21, 2016. The record, however, does not include an order of the probate court transferring the will contest to the circuit court. The probate court also did not rule on Tammy Brewster’s request for letters testamentary or on Chris Jones’s request for letters of administration.

         The circuit court held a three-day trial on the will contest, which concluded on November 29, 2017. On January 2, 2018, the circuit court entered a judgment in favor of the Brewsters, finding that Mike Jones had intended to disinherit Chris Jones and concluding that the evidence did not establish that the Brewsters influenced Mike Jones or exercised control over him in a manner sufficient to invalidate his will. The circuit court remanded the cause to the probate court for the purpose of distributing Mike Jones’s assets pursuant to the will. Chris Jones filed a timely notice of appeal from the circuit court’s judgment to this Court.[1]


         Before addressing the merits of Chris Jones’s appeal, this Court must determine whether the circuit court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the will contest.

" ‘Although neither party raises a question before this Court regarding the circuit court’s subject-matter jurisdiction to consider the appellants’ will contest, the absence of subject-matter jurisdiction cannot be waived, and it is the duty of an appellate court to notice the absence of subject-matter jurisdiction ex mero motu . See MPQ, Inc. v. Birmingham Realty Co., 78 So.3d 391, 393 (Ala. 2011). If the circuit court’s jurisdiction to consider the will contest was never properly invoked, then the judgment entered on [February 13, 2018], is void and [will] not support an appeal. MPQ, 78 So.3d at 394 (" ‘A judgment entered by a court lacking subject-matter jurisdiction is absolutely void and will not support an appeal; an appellate court must dismiss an attempted appeal from such a void judgment.’ " (quoting Vann v. Cook, 989 So.2d 556, 559 (Ala.Civ.App. 2008) ) ).’

Page 857

"McElroy v. McElroy, 254 So.3d 872, 875 (Ala. 2017).

" ‘ "In Alabama, a will may be contested in two ways: (1) under § 43-8-190, Ala. Code 1975, before probate, the contest may be instituted in the probate court or (2) under § 43-8-199, Ala. Code 1975, after probate and within six months thereof, a contest may be instituted by filing a complaint in the circuit court of the county in which the will was probated."
" ‘Stevens v. Gary, 565 So.2d 73, 74 (Ala. 1990).’

"Bond v. Pylant, 3 So.3d 852, 854 (Ala. 2008)." Burns v. Ashley, 274 So.3d 970, __ (Ala. 2018).

         Under Alabama law, a circuit court, under specified conditions delineated in the pertinent statute, can obtain subject-matter jurisdiction over a will contest or the administration of an estate. The probate court has general and original jurisdiction over matters involving the administration of estates and the probating of wills. See Ala. Const. 1901, § 144; and § 12-13-1, Ala. Code 1975. Pursuant to § 43-8-190, Ala. Code 1975, the probate court has jurisdiction over will contests where a will has not been admitted to probate. Section 43-8-190, Ala. Code 1975, states, in pertinent part:

"A will, before the probate thereof, may be contested by any person interested therein, or by any person, who, if the testator had died intestate, would have been an heir or distributee of his estate, by filing in the court where it is offered for probate allegations in writing that the will was not duly executed, or of the unsoundness of mind of the testator, or of any other valid objections thereto ...."

         A party, however, has the statutory right to seek a transfer of a will contest from the probate court to the circuit court pursuant to § 43-8-198, Ala. Code 1975, which reads:

"Upon the demand of any party to the contest, made in writing at the time of filing the initial pleading, the probate court, or the judge thereof, must enter an order transferring the contest to the circuit court of the county in which the contest is made, and must certify all papers and documents pertaining to the contest to the clerk of the circuit court, and the case shall be docketed by the clerk of the circuit court and a special session of said court may be called for the trial of said contest or, said contest may be tried by said circuit court at any special or regular session of said court. The issues must be made up in the circuit court as if the trial were to be had in the probate court, and the trial had in all other respects as trials in other civil cases in the circuit court ...."

         To comply with the statute, the following prerequisites must be met: (1) the will must not be admitted to probate, although it must be offered for probate before it can be contested, see Hooper v. Huey, 293 Ala. 63, 67, 300 So.2d 100, 104 (1974), disapproved of on other grounds, Bardin v. Jones, 371 So.2d 23 (Ala. 1979); (2) the party seeking the transfer must file a written demand for the transfer in the probate court; (3) the transfer demand must be filed at the time of the filing of the will-contest complaint or other initial pleading; (4) the probate court must enter a written order transferring the will contest to the circuit court; (5) the probate court must certify the probate-court record pertaining to the will contest to the circuit-court clerk; (6) the circuit-court clerk shall docket the case in the circuit court; and (7) the circuit court must set the will contest for a

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trial at a regular or a special session of court.

         After a will has been admitted to probate in the probate court, jurisdiction in the circuit court cannot be invoked pursuant to a transfer under § 43-8-198. Within six months following the admission of the will to probate, however, a person with an interest in the will may file a will contest directly in the circuit court pursuant to § 43-8-199, Ala. Code 1975, which provides:

"Any person interested in any will who has not contested the same under the provisions of this article, may, at any time within the six months after the admission of such will to probate in this state, contest the validity of the same by filing a complaint in the ...

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