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Challenging the Validity of a Will vs. the Construction of a Will: North Carolina Court of Appeals Clarifies

              Earlier in September the North Carolina Court of Appeals highlighted the procedural difference between challenging the validity of a will through a caveat proceeding and resolving questions as to the construction of a will through an action for declaratory judgment.[1]

 

                Plaintiff, Deborah Hildebran (“Hildebran”) was listed as the executrix of her father’s will (the “Will”).  Upon her father’s death, the Will was probated in common form before the clerk and Hildebran was appointed executrix.  The Will contained several handwritten markings, notably a line that struck through the name of the testator’s granddaughter Chanté Brittian (“Brittian”), disinheriting her.  During probate Hildebran received a letter from an assistant clerk in the Estates Division of Burke County, stating personnel could “read the blacked out sections on the original version [of the Will] and ha[d] typed up the sections from the original Will . . . [and] any modification by strike-outs, additions to and/or interlineations [were] not valid for purposes of probate.” Essentially, the assistant clerk insisted the apparent partial revocation of the Will as to the granddaughter was ineffective.

 

           Consequently, Hildebran initiated an action for declaratory judgment.  Brittian answered, moving to dismiss the action pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.  Hildebran then moved for summary judgment asking for a determination as to whether a material issue of fact exists.  Brittian responded to the summary judgment motion, asserting Hildebran was effectively objecting to a duly admitted will in probate and should thus file a caveat.

 

          The trial court dismissed Hildebran’s action for a declaratory judgment pursuant to Brittian’s motion to dismiss, then subsequently denied Hildebran’s motion for summary judgment.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, affirming a declaratory judgment action was the proper procedural method because Hildebran sought “judicial resolution of the rights of the parties under the terms of the Will and the effect of the markings thereon on these parties’ rights.”[2]  The Court proceeded to outline the appropriate circumstances under which to bring a declaratory judgment action versus a caveat proceeding.

 

           A declaratory judgment action is proper when an interested party seeks clarification as to the construction of an unchallenged will, particularly as to the rights, status, or legal relation of the interested parties named therein.[3]  In contrast, a caveat proceeding is appropriate when a writing is offered for probate, purporting to be a will, and a party challenges its validity.  Stated differently, “[t]he purpose of a caveat is to determine whether the paperwriting purporting to be a will is in fact the last will and testament of the person for whom it is propounded.”[4]  But, “declaratory judgment is the appropriate procedure for determining the rights of the parties under that will.”[5]

 

          For the foregoing reasons, the Court reversed the trial court’s order dismissing Hildebran’s declaratory judgment claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) and vacated the portion of the trial court’s order denying Hildebran’s motion for summary judgment.[6]

 

 

[1] Brittian v. Brittian, N.C. App. No. COA15-139 (September 15, 2015).

[2] Id.

[3] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-254 (2015); Johnson v. Wagner, 219 N.C. 235, 238, 13 S.E. 2d 419, 421 (1941).

[4] In re Spinks’s Will, 7 N.C. App. 417, 423, 173 S.E. 2d 1, 5 (1970).

[5] Brittian v. Brittian, N.C. App. No. COA15-139 (September 15, 2015).

[6] Practically speaking, once the trial court granted Brittian’s motion to dismiss, it no longer had a claim before it to make a ruling as to whether summary judgment was appropriate because a Rule 12(b)(6) motion operates as an adjudication on the merits.  Accordingly, had the trial court denied Brittian’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a grant or denial of summary judgment would be allowable.  Since Brittian’s motion to dismiss was granted, the trial court should have properly dismissed Hildebran’s summary judgment motion as moot rather than denying the motion.

 

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