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Jones v. Brewster

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 15, 2019

Steven Christopher Jones
v.
Tammy Brewster and Jeffrey Eugene Brewster

          Appeal from Colbert Circuit Court (CV-16-39)

          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 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]

         Discussion

         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))).'

"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, [Ms. 1170565, Sept. 28, 2018] So. 3d, (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 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 circuit court in the county in which such will was probated."

Under § 43-8-199, only two perquisites exist: (1) the will must have been admitted to probate no more than six months earlier; and (2) the complaint must be filed directly in the circuit court.[2]

         Lastly, the administration of an estate in the probate court can be removed to the circuit court pursuant to § 12-11-41, Ala. Code 1975. Section § 12-11-41 reads:

"The administration of any estate may be removed from the probate court to the circuit court at any time before a final settlement thereof, by any heir, devisee, legatee, distributee, executor, administrator or administrator with the will annexed of any such estate, without assigning any special equity; and an order of removal must be made by the court, upon the filing of a sworn petition by any such heir, devisee, legatee, distributee, executor, administrator or administrator with the will annexed of any such estate, reciting that the petitioner is such heir, devisee, legatee, distributee, executor, administrator or administrator with the will annexed and that, in the opinion of the petitioner, such estate can be better administered in the circuit court than in the probate court."

         To invoke the circuit court's jurisdiction over the administration of an estate through removal, "the filing of a petition for removal in the circuit court and the entry of an order of removal by that court are prerequisites to that court's acquisition of jurisdiction over the administration of the estate pursuant to § 12-11-41." DuBose v. Weaver, 68 So.3d 814, 822 (Ala. 2011)(emphasis omitted).

         In a will contest, the subject-matter jurisdiction of both the probate court and the circuit court is statutory and limited. Kaller v. Rigdon, 480 So.2d 536, 539 (Ala. 1985). In a long line of cases, this Court has held that strict compliance with the statutory language pertaining to a will contest is required to invoke the jurisdiction of the appropriate court. Boshell v. Lay, 596 So.2d 581, 583 (Ala. 1992)("In order to contest a will under either of these methods, the contestant must strictly comply with the statutory language in order to quicken jurisdiction of the appropriate court."); Marshall v. Vreeland, 571 So.2d 1037, 1038 (Ala. 1990)("The requirements of § 43-8-198 must be complied with exactly, because will contest jurisdiction is statutorily conferred upon the circuit court."); Bullen v. Brown, 535 So.2d 76, 78 (Ala. 1988)("It is clear that will contest jurisdiction, being statutorily conferred, must comply with the statutory language strictly in order to quicken jurisdiction of the appropriate court."); Kaller v. Rigdon, 480 So.2d at 538 ("Because will contest jurisdiction is statutorily conferred, the procedural requirements of the applicable statute must be complied with exactly."); Forrester v. Putman, 409 So.2d 773, 775 (Ala. 1981)("There was neither a transfer of a contest to the circuit court according to Code 1975, § 43-1-78[, now § 43-8-198], nor a circuit court contest of a will admitted to probate according to Code 1975, § 43-1-79[, now § 43-8-199]. A circuit court's jurisdiction over a will contest is statutory and limited."); Ex parte Stephens, 259 Ala. 361, 363, 66 So.2d 901, 903 (1953)(concluding that the words "must transfer the [will] contest" "have been regarded as mandatory"); and Ex parte Pearson, 241 Ala. 467, 469, 3 So.2d 5, 6 (1941)("It is familiar law in Alabama, the only way to quicken into exercise a statutory and limited jurisdiction is by pursuing the mode prescribed by the statute.").

         Most recently, in Burns, supra, a case factually and procedurally similar to the instant case, the appellants initiated a will contest in the probate court, alleging that the appellee "used undue influence to procure [Rheba Sue Ashley's, the decedent's, ] execution of the 2014 will." Burns, So.3d at _. The probate court in Burns did not admit the will to probate or appoint a personal representative of the decedent's estate. The appellants filed a motion to transfer the will contest to the circuit court pursuant to § 43-8-198, Ala. Code 1975, but the probate court did not enter an order transferring the will contest to the circuit court. Burns, So.3d at _.[3] On appeal, this Court determined that the circuit court ...


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