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In re Estate of Baker

Supreme Court of Alaska

December 30, 2016

In the Matter of the Estate of ALVA MARIE BAKER.

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Catherine M. Easter, Judge. Superior Court No. 3 AN-14-00397 PR

          Stuart C. Rader, Ingaldson Fitzgerald, P.C., Anchorage, for Appellants.

          David D. Clark, Law Office of David Clark, Anchorage, for Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, and Bolger, Justices. [Fabe and Maassen, Justices, not participating.]

          OPINION

          STOWERS, Chief Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Alaska Statute 13.12.502(b) provides that a testamentary instrument will be "valid as a holographic will, whether or not witnessed, if the signature and material portions of the document are in the testator's handwriting." Before us is a purported holographic will, written totally in the decedent's handwriting, with instructions to distribute the decedent's estate at death. The sole question on appeal is whether the decedent's handwritten name at the beginning of the document is a "signature" as contemplated by AS 13.12.502(b). This is an issue of first impression in our state, and we agree with the superior court's conclusion that a testator's handwritten name in the exordium clause[1] of a purported holographic will is sufficient to satisfy the signature requirement in AS 13.12.502(b) unless the instrument is otherwise incomplete.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         In January 2010 Alva Marie Baker handwrote a purported will. The instrument, as closely as possible, is reproduced below [sic throughout]:

Jan 10/2010
Jan 10/2010
My name is Alva Marie Baker -
My "will" when I pass on is to go as follows!
(1) My home goes to my daughter Connie Marie Sumrall
(2) Any vehicles or vehicle! I own upon death goes to Connie Sumrall
(3) All "tools" and "furniture" of any kind goes to Connie Sumrall
(4) All funds held in a checking account goes to Connie Sumrall at Northrim Bank[2]
(5) All funds in saving accounts goes to Connie Sumrall
(6) Any Insurance I may have goes to Connie Sumrall
(7) Any Jewerly I may have upon death goes to my daughter Connie Sumrall
(8) All pictures I have upon my death given to me by "Connie my grandchildren gave me, can go back to the "giver ! ! "I can not take them with me ! !
(9) All "old" furniture can go to Connie, if she wants them if not, let the grand children "pick" some - please do not fight over anything !
(10) Money I have M "Key Bank Eagle River, AK) Equal divided
Will be divided to (Equal) my 7 grand kids -
The grand kids that have passed away, if they have a child it will go to (there child or divided between their kids)

         Baker died in November 2013. In February 2014 Baker's daughter, Connie Marie Sumrall, filed a petition for adjudication of testacy and formal probate of the instrument. That petition was opposed by Seth Whaley and Jessica Milwicz, two of Baker's grandchildren.

         Sumrall moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that the document was a valid holographic will per AS 13.12.502(b) because it was written in Baker's hand and signed by Baker. Whaley and Milwicz opposed that motion arguing that there were genuine issues of material fact as to, among other things, whether the handwriting on the will was Baker's, whether there was testamentary intent, and whether there were issues of incapacity or undue influence. The superior court denied Sumrall's motion for partial summary judgment, ruling that an evidentiary hearing would be necessary "to determine . . . whether the identification of Ms. Baker constitutes a signature as contemplated by [the holographic will statute]."

         Prior to the hearing, Whaley and Milwicz stipulated that the handwriting on the contested will was entirely Baker's. And all parties stipulated that whether Baker's handwritten name in the first sentence of the contested will "complie[d] with the signature requirement of AS 13.12.502" was "an issue of law for determination by the court, " and that Sumrall "[was] not precluded from offering extrinsic evidence in support of her opposition to [Whaley and Milwicz's] motion for summary judgment." The superior court issued orders accepting both stipulations.

         Whaley and Milwicz then filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking a determination that Baker's handwritten name at the top of the document was not a signature as contemplated by AS 13.12.502(b), and that Baker therefore died intestate. Sumrall opposed that motion and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment arguing that Baker's handwritten name was a signature as contemplated by AS 13.12.502(b) and that the document was a valid holographic will.

         In March 2015 the superior court denied Whaley and Milwicz's motion for partial summary judgment. The order related exclusively to the question "whether the purported execution of the will-a signature contained in the introductory clause-can satisfy [AS] 13.12.502(b), governing holographic wills." Alaska Statute 13.12.502(b) provides that a testamentary instrument may be "valid as a holographic will, whether or not witnessed, if the signature and material portions of the document are in the testator's handwriting." The court concluded that, although there "is limited Alaska precedent" interpreting that statute, Alaska law does not require a terminal signature in order for a holographic will to be valid.

         The court reasoned that "Alaska follows a holographic will statute nearly identical to that in California, "[3] and California courts have determined that when faced with a purported will in which the signature does not appear at the end, "the court must determine from an inspection of the instrument's language, form[, ] and the relative position of its parts whether or not there is a positive and satisfactory inference that the decedent's name was placed in that location with the intention of executing the instrument."[4] Applying the California rule to this case, the superior court determined that there was a "satisfactory inference" that Baker placed her name in the introductory clause "with the intention of executing the instrument" and that the instrument therefore "as a matter of law ... meets the requirements of AS § 13.12.502(b)."

         Whaley and Milwicz filed a motion for reconsideration and the superior court denied the motion. Whaley and Milwicz then notified the court that they wished to dismiss their "claims concerning decedent's competence, undue influence[, ] and insane delusion"; the court issued an order dismissing those claims with prejudice. Whaley and Milwicz sought our review of the superior court's ruling that the document was a valid holographic will. We denied their petition for review without prejudice because it was not a direct appeal from the superior court's entry of a formal testacy order.[5]

         The parties then stipulated that there were no more disputed issues. The superior court entered the stipulation "[b]ased on contestants' notice of dismissal with prejudice as to their other objections and their request that the evidentiary [hearing] to address other objections be vacated." The will subsequently entered formal probate, and Sumrall was appointed personal representative of the estate.

         Whaley and Milwicz now appeal the entry of the final testacy order.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The interpretation of a statute is a legal question which we review de novo.[6]"We interpret... Alaska law according to reason, practicality, and common sense, taking into account the plain meaning and purpose of the law as well as the intent of the drafters."[7] In interpreting statutes, we take "a 'sliding scale' approach...: 'the plainer the language of the statute, the more convincing any contrary legislative history must be.' "[8]

         IV. ...


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