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In re Estate of Rathbone

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

March 15, 2018

In the Matter of the Estate of KATHRYN JOYCE RATHBONE, Deceased.
v.
ESTATE OF KATHRYN JOYCE RATHBONE, TODD RATHBONE, Personal Representative, Petitioner. GLEN L. RATHBONE, Respondent,

          JOHNSON, J.

         This case involves the issue of whether and to what extent superior courts have authority to intervene in the administration of nonintervention estates. Todd Rathbone was named personal representative of his mother's estate in her nonintervention will. Glen Rathbone, Todd's[1] brother and beneficiary of the will, took issue with Todd's administration of the estate and filed a petition requesting an accountancy under RCW 11.68.110. He then filed an action under chapter 11.96A RCW, the Trust and Estate Dispute Resolution Act (TEDRA), requesting the trial court construe the will in his favor. The trial court held it had the authority to construe the will under RCW 11.68.070 and, in the alternative, TEDRA itself gave the trial court authority to construe the will. The court ruled in favor of Glen's construction of the will and overrode the interpretation of Todd, the personal representative. The Court of Appeals affirmed that the trial court had authority to construe the will but on the separate basis that Glen had invoked authority under RCW 11.68.110 when he filed his petition for an accounting. We reverse and hold that the statutory provisions under TEDRA did not give the trial court authority to construe the will in this case. We also hold that the authority invoked under the nonintervention statutes, such as RCW 11.68.110 and .070, is limited to resolving issues provided under each statute.

         FACTS

         Kathryn Joyce Rathbone died on January 31, 2013. She named her three sons, Glen, Todd, and Douglas Rathbone, as residuary beneficiaries in her nonintervention will. The will was admitted to probate, and Todd was designated as personal representative of the estate per the will's instructions. Grant County Superior Court found the estate solvent and ordered it to be administered without court intervention.

         The will contained a broadly worded no contest provision stating the following:

5.4 NO CONTEST PROVISION. My Personal Representative and Trustee shall have the authority to construe this Will and trusts and to resolve all matters pertaining to disputed issues or controverted claims. I do not want to burden my Estate or any trust with the cost of a litigated proceeding to resolve questions of law or fact.
. . . [A]ny person, agency or organization who has, or who may have, a present, future, or contingent interest in this Will or any trust set forth herein or in the trust property, will by his contest (i.e., a contest, dispute or other legal proceeding commenced without the consent of my Personal Representative or Trustee) forfeit any interest which he, his issue has or may have. My Estate shall be distributed and any trust will continue thereafter as if the person, agency, or organization were deceased or dissolved. I specifically desire that my son, Glen, and his children, do not contest, challenge, or harass my Personal Representative and Trustees.

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 58-59.

         The section of the will sparking this case deals with a piece of property in Moses Lake, Washington (Road K Property). The section reads as follows:

4.1.3 Real Property - Road K NE. I own approximately 1.88 acres of land which includes a home at 4982 Road K NE, Moses Lake, Washington. In addition, there is a[] contiguous parcel of pasture with a barn, which is approximately 38 acres. These two parcels together shall be referred to herein as the Road K Property. Provided that he satisfies the conditions set forth in Section 1.3.2, [2] I leave the Road K Property to Glen, subject however to an option in favor of Todd to purchase the same from my estate for the sum of $350, 000 in cash, or for a portion of his share of the estate of equal value, paid at closing. Said option must be exercised no later than nine months after the date of my death, and the resulting purchase closed, no later than twenty four months after the date of my death.

CP at 54.

         Todd exercised his option to purchase the Road K Property and paid $350, 000 to the estate. The will instructed the residue be divided evenly between the three brothers. On December 23, 2014, Todd filed a declaration of completion of probate with the court. He notified the beneficiaries he had submitted the declaration of completion of probate and informed them they could petition the court to determine the reasonableness of the proposed fees or for an accounting within 30 days of the filing of the declaration of completion of probate.

         On January 20, 2015, under a separate cause number, Glen filed a petition under RCW 11.68.110 to obtain court approval of fees and order an accounting. Two days later, Glen filed a petition for order construing will under TEDRA and RCW 11.12.230, alleging Todd's distribution of the estate contradicted Ms. Rathbone's intent, constituted self-dealing, and was a breach of Todd's fiduciary duties as personal representative. Glen argued that Ms. Rathbone intended to give him either the Road K Property or $350, 000. Thus, according to Glen, Todd's decision to allocate the sale proceeds to the estate residue reduced Glen's portion of the estate.

         At a hearing on Glen's petition, the superior court held it had authority under RCW 11.68.070 and TEDRA to construe the will. In the event that RCW 11.68.070 did not apply, the court held that TEDRA itself gave it authority under the plain language of RCW 11.96A.080.[3] The court granted Glen's petition for order construing will and held Glen was entitled to the $350, 000 in sale proceeds from Todd's purchase of the Road K Property. The court also awarded Glen attorney fees and costs of $15, 769.21 to be paid by the estate.

         Todd appealed, arguing the superior court did not have authority to construe the will. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding Glen's filing of the petition requesting approval of fees and an accounting under RCW 11.68.110 was sufficient to invoke the superior court's authority. Once that authority was invoked, TEDRA acted as a supplement to allow the superior court to construe the will. In re Estate of Rathbone, No. 34051-1-III, slip op. at 5 (Wash.Ct.App. Feb. 9, 2017) (unpublished), http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/340511_unp.pdf. The Court of Appeals denied attorney fees and denied Todd's motion for reconsideration.

         ISSUES

         (1) Whether RCW 11.68.110 gives trial courts authority to ...


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