District Court Erred Dismissing a Will Contest According to a Joint Stipulation

Elder Law Answers case summary.The Supreme Court of Nebraska holds that the district court erred when it dismissed a will contest with prejudice due to a joint stipulation to which an interested person objected. In re Estate of Dr. Wayne L. Ryan (Neb. No. S-22-252, April 7, 2023).

Alleging undue influence, Stacy Ryan challenged the validity of her late father’s 2015 will and codicil. His previous 2004 will benefited all of his children, including her sister Constance Ryan, whereas the 2015 will only benefited the trustee of his trust.

Ms. Stacy Ryan formed a compromise with several of her siblings but not Ms. Constance Ryan. They filed a “Joint Stipulation for Dismissal With Prejudice.” As Ms. Constance Ryan was not a party to the agreement, she objected to the stipulation. Overruling her motion and objection, the district court dismissed the case with prejudice according to the agreement. Ms. Constance Ryan appealed.

On appeal, the Nebraska Supreme Court considers whether the district court erred when it dismissed the will contest with prejudice.

Under the Nebraska Probate Code § 30-24,124(3), a court can approve a compromise between parties when it finds that there is a good faith controversy, and the agreement has a just and reasonable effect upon the interests of persons represented by fiduciaries or other representatives. In this case, the district court did not appropriately review the stipulation or make the required statutory findings.

A will contest is an in rem proceeding, not an action. Every person interested is a party, even if not named. Parties lack the power to dismiss in rem proceedings. Even though she brought the will challenge, Ms. Stacy Ryan could not terminate it on her own authority

Since the district court did not follow the Nebraska Probate Code’s procedure for accepting a compromise, and Ms. Stacy Ryan lacked the power to dismiss the will contest, the district court erred in dismissing the will challenge according to the joint stipulation.

Read the full opinion.