The Michigan Court of Appeals recently issued a decision that offers guidance as to how a personal representative should respond when the interested persons disagree over the validity of a proffered will. In re Estate of Cyril George Arliss, Docket No 362013, 2023 Westlaw 8095447 (Mich Ct App Nov 16, 2023) (unpublished).
After Cyril Arliss died, the probate court appointed professional fiduciary Darren Findling as personal representative of Arliss’ estate. Reggie Miller presented Findling with Arliss’ purported will, which appeared to be signed by Arliss and was also notarized and witnessed. Findling initially concluded that the will was valid and may have sought to admit it to probate.
Daniel Frederick then filed a petition with the probate court, contesting the validity of the will. Frederick claimed to be Arliss’ biological child, who had been adopted by his mother’s second husband. Frederick presented Findling with a handwriting analyst’s report, concluding that Arliss’ purported signature on the will was not genuine. Frederick also presented Findling with proof that the credentials of the notary had lapsed as of the date of the signing of the alleged will. In response to Frederick’s evidence, Findling petitioned the probate court for instructions as to how to proceed. The probate court removed Findling as personal representative (not for cause but to appoint Frederick as the successor personal representative) and ordered Findling to file his final account.
Frederick then sued Findling for negligence, claiming that Findling breached his fiduciary duties by failing to investigate the will’s validity as Frederick had done. The probate court dismissed Frederick’s suit, granting summary disposition to Findling. On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed. “The record shows that Findling was presented with a presumptively valid will.” Id at *4. “[Frederick], as the will contestant, had the burden of establishing lack of testamentary intent or capacity, undue influence, fraud, duress, mistake or revocation.” Id. (internal quotation omitted). “When [Frederick] challenged the will’s validity, Findling acted diligently in investigating the matter and seeking further guidance from the probate court.” Id. Frederick claimed other breaches by Findling, but the appellate court found no factual support for any of those claims.
This case reflects how a personal representative should respond when interested persons dispute a factual matter relevant to estate administration. The personal representative should bring the matter to the attention of the probate court by filing a petition and asking for the probate court’s instructions. This course of action is generally understood to protect the personal representative from any allegation of breach of duty, exactly as happened here. If the initial personal representative in this matter had instead chosen sides and purported to resolve the factual dispute himself, then the outcome of this case would likely have been very different.
If you need assistance with a disputed estate administration, contact David Skidmore at email@example.com or 616.752.2491 or contact another member of Warner’s Probate Litigation Practice Group.