Will Probate Does Not Time Bar Litigation About Unadmitted Codicil

Elder Law Answers case summary.Note: Unpublished opinion.

The Washington Court of Appeals finds that the trial court erred by dismissing a challenge to a will as untimely when it was neither time-barred nor waived. In the Matter of the Estate of Ruth E. Huehnerhoff (Wash. Ct. App., No. 83504-1-I , January 30, 2023).

After Ms. Ruth Huehnerhoff passed away in 2019, her daughter, Mrs. Caroline Roberts, petitioned to probate her will. She presented an addendum to the will. The codicil limited the share her brother, Mr. Edward Huehnerhoff, would receive and increased the amounts her children would get compared to their cousins. Without mentioning the supplement to the will, the court admitted the will to probate. The daughter distributed her mother’s estate according to the unadmitted codicil.

Mr. Edward Huehnerhoff, along with his wife, sued Mrs. Roberts, alleging breach of contract and undue influence, and seeking his sister’s removal as personal representative of their mother’s estate.

He served notice on other family members, including Mr. Robert Huehnerhoff, Mr. Joseph Huehnerhoff, and Mr. Gary Huehnerhoff. Yet, they neither joined nor intervened in the action.

During discovery, evidence emerged that Mrs. Roberts might have forged the codicil. Before the case went to trial, Mr. Edward Huehnerhoff and Mrs. Roberts settled in June 2021. The following month, Mr. Robert Huehnerhoff, Mr. Joseph Huehnerhoff, and Mr. Gary Huehnerhoff sued Mrs. Roberts and her children. They alleged that she breached her duty as the estate’s representative by distributing assets according to a forged addendum.

In response, Mrs. Roberts moved to dismiss the petition. She asserted that failing to intervene in the previous case constituted a waiver and that the statute of limitations for a will challenge had run, as more than four months had elapsed since the probate matter commenced. The superior court commissioner agreed, and a superior court judge adopted the decision.

On review, the appellate court finds that the Huehnerhoffs’ allegations that Mrs. Roberts breached her fiduciary duty were timely. The Huehnerhoffs made the claims before the court discharged her as personal representative.

The challenge to the addendum was punctual. A different statute of limitations applies to the codicil challenge than the will contest. Since the probate court never admitted the will’s codicil, the statute of limitations to contest the codicil never began to run.

When they decided not to intervene in the earlier case, the Huehnerhoffs did not waive their right to independent action. Mrs. Roberts cites cases showing waiver of discrete contractual or procedural rights. She presents no legal precedent of a plaintiff waiving their right to an independent action.

The lower court erred when it dismissed the case. Here, the challengers bring a distinct action concerning a separate legal document from the will.

Read the full opinion here.