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In re Hatten

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 26, 2019

In the Matter of the Estate of JERRY HATTEN.

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3KN-13-00028 PR of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Kenai, Anna Moran, Judge.

          Andrew J. Fierro, Law Offices of Andrew J. Fierro, Anchorage, for Appellant Beverly Toland.

          Sonja Redmond, Law Office of Sonja Redmond, Soldotna, for Appellee Katrina Flatten, Personal Representative of the Estate of Jerry Flatten.

          Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Carney, Justices.

          OPINION

          WINFREE, JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A man died intestate after cohabiting for over 20 years with a woman. The decedent had named the woman as the sole beneficiary of his individual retirement account, but he did not provide for her to inherit any of his other assets. She sought a larger share of his estate, arguing that (1) the decedent had promised to support her financially if she moved to Alaska to live with him and (2) the court should divide the decedent's property according to their intent because they were domestic partners. A special master recommended rejecting her claims, and the superior court adopted the master's recommendation. Because we conclude that the superior court did not err in interpreting the scope of the parties' alleged contractual agreement or in rejecting the woman's domestic partnership claim, we affirm.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         A. Facts

         Jerry Hatten and Beverly Toland met in California in 1989. Hatten, who lived in Alaska, returned to California in 1992 and reconnected with Toland. According to Toland, Hatten asked her to leave her job, friends, and family behind to live with him in Kasilof. Hatten purportedly assured her that if she relocated "he would take care of [her]" and that she "wouldn't have to work." Toland agreed, and she moved into the house that she would occupy with Hatten for over 20 years.

         Hatten was a commercial fisherman and paid for most of the couple's shared expenses. Toland worked at various jobs, first at a grocery store, then at a cannery, and later as a bartender. She also saw to domestic chores, such as cooking and cleaning. According to Toland, neither she nor Hatten had any other romantic partners, there was never any period of physical separation between them, and they shared a bed until the final years of Hatten's life, when he was experiencing discomfort from various ailments and opted to sleep on the couch.

         Neither Toland nor Hatten wanted to formally marry; each had previous marriages ending in divorce. Hatten's and Toland's financial and legal affairs consequently were less intertwined than their shared daily life. They had two joint credit cards, but they maintained separate checking accounts. Most significantly, Hatten exclusively owned the house they lived in.

         Hatten built the house in 1978 and paid off the building loan shortly after Toland's arrival in Alaska. In 1998 he obtained a loan to purchase the leased land where he had built the house, and he subsequently paid off that loan around 2007. A 1998 appraisal valued the property at $190, 800. Toland did not contribute to the loan payments nor was she listed on utility accounts, which Hatten paid. At no time did Hatten grant title to Toland. Hatten has two adult children from his previous marriage, a daughter and a son. Although Hatten's daughter had for some time lived outside his home, it remained a primary residence for his son, who is physically disabled.

         Toland gave Hatten a will kit five years before his death. Hatten suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and when he battled pneumonia in January 2013 his friends and family asked how he planned to take care of his estate and urged him to create a will. In February Hatten named Toland the sole beneficiary of his $ 194, 000 Edward Jones IRA account. The beneficiary designation form lists Toland's relationship to Hatten as "Domestic Partner." A month later Hatten suffered a heart attack and died. He left no will.

         B. Proceedings

         Toland filed a claim against the estate in September 2013, seeking, in relevant part, a "fair division of the value of the parties' [domestic partnership] assets... taking into account [Hatten's] promise to take care of [her] for the rest of her life." The estate opposed her claim, requesting that it be denied in full and that Toland be required to vacate Hatten's residence.

         A probate master conducted an evidentiary hearing to consider Toland's claims. The parties and witnesses offered conflicting testimony regarding the nature of Toland and Hatten's relationship. Some of the estate's witnesses described the relationship as one of convenience, not that of two romantic or life partners. They pointed to the fact that Hatten never claimed Toland as a dependent on his tax returns but once actually claimed her as a housekeeper. But Toland and others close to the pair described their relationship as that of a loving husband and wife, less the paperwork.

         Testimony about Hatten's intentions regarding his property also conflicted. The estate's witnesses testified that Hatten was private about his financial affairs and never intended to give Toland the house. According to Hatten's daughter, her father said, "[h]is assets and his money and his things were none of our business," and when she asked if he had something in order Hatten replied, "don't worry, you and [your brother] will be fine, otherwise, it's none of your business."

         Toland and other witnesses painted a very different picture of Hatten's intentions. Toland testified that Hatten told her "several times" he was going to make a will and "he wanted [her] to have [the] house" so that she could sell it, because it was too expensive and difficult for her to manage its upkeep alone. Toland stated that she had given Hatten a will kit, but she described him as a "procrastinator" when it came to paperwork. Toland had been unaware that Hatten had made her the sole beneficiary of his IRA; she testified that "[a]t one point, he told me that I was going to get 52% and his three grandsons were going to get the [rest] .... [A]ll of a sudden, he - he decided to change it. ... I didn't even know about it until after the fact." According to Toland, when she saw the paperwork and asked Hatten about it, he explained that his recent bout with pneumonia "opened his eyes that it was time for him to start taking care of things" and he was "going to get a will going."

         Hatten's cousin recalled speaking with Hatten about a will "three or four times" as his health declined, and he had said, "I promise you that [Toland] will always have this roof over her head. This is her home." Another of Hatten's cousins testified Hatten said that Toland was "going to be taken care of and that he had "been seeing to it a little bit at a time." Finally, a neighbor who worked in real estate testified to a discussion she had with Hatten a month before he died, in which he both asked her for help with the IRA account and inquired about what he needed to do to get the house in Toland's name.

         The probate master found that since "at least 1994," Hatten and Toland "lived together as a committed couple in [Hatten's] home." However, beyond the parties' general statements the master concluded that, "little is known about [Hatten's] specific intentions." The master found that, although Hatten made inquiries about transferring title of his house to Toland and received a will kit five years prior to his death, he "took no additional steps to transfer title, write down his intentions, or create a trust or will." Instead, approximately a month before his death, he named Toland a "100% beneficiary of his $194, 000 Edward Jones IRA account."

         The master concluded that Alaska's intestate succession laws do not contemplate the unmarried domestic partner. The master noted that the cases Toland cited "authorize courts to divide unmarried cohabitants' property according to the parties' intentions" upon separation but concluded that "[n]one provide direct authority regarding property division after death." The master concluded the "subjective intentions" of a decedent with ...


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