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In re Estate of Labasse

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

September 12, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF LOUIS LABASSE, JR., DECEASED: WENDY CHESTER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF LOUIS LABASSE, JR. APPELLANT
v.
RUBY D. LABASSE APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/08/2016

         COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: PEARL RIVER COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. DEBORAH J. GAMBRELL TRIAL JUDGE.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: G. CHARLES BORDIS IV.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: JAMES L. GRAY.

          BEFORE LEE, C.J., BARNES AND CARLTON, JJ.

          CARLTON, J.

         ¶1. Louis Labasse Jr. died on June 11, 2014. He was survived by his wife, Ruby Labasse, and his daughters from a prior marriage, Wendy Chester and Pamela Ortis. The Pearl River County Chancery Court granted Wendy's petition to probate her father's last will and testament and to be appointed executor of his estate. Throughout the probate proceedings, Ruby filed multiple petitions and motions requesting various relief. Aggrieved by the chancellor's grant of relief to Ruby, Wendy appeals and argues the chancellor erred by: (1) considering Ruby's petition to contest the will; (2) ruling upon the final accounting, the petition to close the estate, and Ruby's objections to the final accounting; (3) awarding Ruby a one-third interest in Louis's estate; (4) ruling on Ruby's "Motion for Citation of Contempt" against Wendy; and (5) awarding Ruby attorney's fees. Through two motions filed at the same time as her appellate brief, Ruby raises additional issues for this Court's consideration: (1) whether Pamela should be dismissed as an appellant from this appeal; and (2) whether she is entitled to attorney's fees and expenses on appeal.

         ¶2. Upon review, we affirm the chancellor's judgment. We also find Ruby's motion to dismiss Pamela as an appellant is well taken, and we therefore dismiss Pamela in this matter. However, although Wendy's claims on appeal ultimately prove unsuccessful, we decline to find her appeal frivolous. We therefore deny Ruby's motion for attorney's fees and expenses on appeal.

         FACTS

         ¶3. On May 22, 2014, less than a month before his death, Louis published and declared an instrument that purported to be his last will and testament. Subject to certain restrictions, the will left Ruby a life estate in real property that served as the couple's homestead. Ruby also received Louis's interest in the couple's joint checking account. Louis's daughters Wendy and Pamela received the remainder of Louis's property. On July 18, 2014, Wendy filed a petition to probate her father's will and to be appointed executor of his estate. On July 24, 2014, the chancellor entered an order to admit the will to probate in common form and to appoint Wendy executor.

         ¶4. On October 10, 2014, Ruby renounced the bequest and devise of the probated will and filed a spousal-share election pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 91-5-25 (Rev. 2013). The following month, on November 20, 2014, Ruby filed a petition to contest the will and remove Wendy as executor, and she requested an accounting and a widow's allowance. The same day, Ruby also filed a petition to establish her widow's right to the possession and use of the couple's homestead.

         ¶5. On February 11, 2015, the chancellor entered an order on Ruby's various petitions. The chancellor found that Wendy had changed the locks on Louis and Ruby's homestead and had removed property from the homestead. In addition, the chancellor determined that, prior to Louis's death, Wendy used a power of attorney to write checks to herself and withdraw $24, 795.98 in funds from Louis and Ruby's joint checking account. In her February 11, 2015 order, the chancellor (1) dismissed Ruby's petition to contest the will after acknowledging that Ruby had withdrawn the petition; (2) denied Ruby's petition for a widow's allowance; (3) denied Ruby's petition to remove Wendy as executor, subject to Wendy's compliance with the requirements the chancellor established in the order; (4) granted Ruby's petition to establish her right to the possession and use of the homestead; and (5) granted Ruby a spousal-share election and awarded her a one-third interest in Louis's estate. In addition to the other requirements, the chancellor ordered Wendy to return all the personal property she had removed from the homestead and to deliver the homestead keys to Ruby.

         ¶6. On May 18, 2015, Ruby filed a "Motion for Citation of Contempt" against Wendy, claiming that Wendy had willfully disobeyed the chancellor's February 11, 2015 order. Following a hearing on Ruby's contempt motion, the chancellor entered an agreed order that, among other things, directed Wendy, as estate executor, to file an inventory and accounting, place certain funds into the account for Louis's estate, and pay Ruby attorney's fees related to the contempt action.

         ¶7. On July 2, 2015, Wendy filed her inventory and accounting, to which Ruby timely objected. At a telephonic hearing, the chancellor ruled that, in lieu of ordering Wendy to deposit certain funds into the estate account, she would award Ruby a monetary judgment against Wendy. Thus, on September 2, 2015, the chancellor entered an order awarding Ruby $18, 795.98 plus interest against Wendy for Wendy's failure to comply with the chancellor's earlier order. The chancellor reserved a ruling on Ruby's request for attorney's fees until the close of Louis's estate.

         ¶8. On November 24, 2015, after Wendy failed to comply with the chancellor's order to file a final accounting and close the estate, the attorney for the estate signed and filed the final accounting and the petition to close the estate and discharge Wendy as executor. On February 8, 2016, the chancellor granted the petition to close the estate. Aggrieved by the chancellor's grant of Ruby's various requests for relief, Wendy appeals.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶9. This Court declines to disturb a chancellor's factual findings unless the findings were manifestly wrong or clearly erroneous or the chancellor applied an erroneous legal standard. Turnage v. Brooks, 213 So.3d 103, 105 (¶2) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016). "As long as substantial evidence supports the chancellor's findings, an appellate court is without authority to disturb them, even if it would have found otherwise as an original matter." Id ...


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