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Succession of Harlan

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 1, 2018

SUCCESSION OF CHARLES GEORGE HARLAN

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF POINTE COUPEE

          HUGHES, J.

         The issue in this case is whether a revocation clause, contained within a notarial testament that was found to be void for failure to include an attestation clause, could be valid as an authentic act and thereby revoke two prior testaments, resulting in an intestate succession. The district court found no valid revocation. The appellate court ruled that the invalid testament nevertheless met the requirements of La. C.C. art. 1833 so as to qualify as an authentic act, capable of revoking prior testaments pursuant to La. C.C. art. 1607(2). For the following reasons we reverse the appellate court, reinstate the district court rulings, and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The decedent, Charles G. Harlan, died on November 26, 2015, survived by his second wife, Xiaoping W. Harlan, and his four adult children from his first marriage, Veni S. Harlan, Hansel M. Harlan, Jeffrey D. Harlan, and Gretel G. Harlan Kelly.

         On December 10, 2015 the Harlan children filed a petition in the district court, seeking to have the decedent's March 9, 2000 testament filed and executed and to have Hansel Harlan named as executor of the succession. The petitioners also asserted their agreement to an independent administration of the succession in accordance with La. C.C.P. art. 3396 et seq. On the same day, the district court granted the relief sought, ordering that, pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 2891, the 2000 notarial testament be filed and executed, and directing that the order be given the effect of probate. In addition, an independent administration of the succession was ordered, Hansel Harlan was appointed as the independent executor of the succession, and he was invested with the rights, powers, authorities, privileges, and duties appropriate to that appointment.

         On January 15, 2016 Xiaoping filed a petition to nullify the probated March 9, 2000 testament, to have Hansel removed as executor, and to have herself appointed as administratrix of the succession. Xiaoping further sought to file a purported notarial testament, executed on June 5, 2012 and containing a revocation of all prior testaments, along with a March 1, 2014 codicil.

         Hansel filed an opposition to Xiaoping's petition, a rule to show cause why succession documents, assets, and property should not be turned over, and a rule to show cause why Xiaoping should not be denied a widow's portion.

         Following a February 11, 2016 hearing on Xiaoping's petition and Hansel's opposition and rules to show cause, District Court Judge Edward J. Gaidry, Pro Tempore, ruled in Hansel's favor: declaring the 2012 testament and 2014 codicil null ab initio; denying Xiaoping's challenge to the probated 2000 testament; denying Xiaoping's request to be appointed administratrix; reconfirming Hansel as executor; ordering Xiaoping to vacate residential property owned by the succession within thirty days; requiring Xiaoping to turn over all property belonging to the estate to the executor; and denying a marital portion to Xiaoping. Judgment was signed on February 24, 2016.

         Meanwhile, on February 23, 2016, Xiaoping filed a petition seeking probate of an olographic testament allegedly executed by the decedent on May 24, 2007, which she had recently discovered among the decedent's effects. A hearing on the validity of the 2007 testament was scheduled for April 7, 2016.

         Hansel and his siblings opposed the petition, arguing that, although the purported 2012 notarial testament was invalid for failure to have the statutorily required attestation clause, the document was nevertheless an authentic act that served to revoke all prior testaments, including the 2007 olographic testament; thus, the succession was intestate.[1]

         On March 31, 2016 the parties filed a joint motion to limit the April 7, 2016 hearing to issues related to the validity of the 2007 olographic testament. At the conclusion of the April 7, 2016 hearing, newly-elected District Court Judge Elizabeth A. Engolio ruled: that the 2007 olographic testament was entirely written, dated, and signed in the decedent's handwriting and met the legal requirements to be admitted to probate and executed; and that the revocation language contained in the invalid 2012 testament could not be applied to revoke the 2007 testament. Judgment was signed on June 6, 2016.

         On April 27, 2016 Hansel and his siblings filed a motion for devolutive appeal from the February 24, 2016 judgment, and on June 10, 2016 they filed an appeal of the June 6, 2016 judgment.

         The two appeals were heard concurrently in the appellate court. Concluding that the 2012 testament, though invalid, was nonetheless an authentic act, which revoked the 2000 testament, the appellate court reversed that part of the February 24, 2016 district court judgment that had rejected the challenge to the probate of the March 9, 2000 testament. See Succession of Harlan, 16-1345, 2017 WL 2445186 (La.App. 1 Cir. 6/6/17) (unpublished). The appellate court further reversed that part of the June 6, 2016 district court judgment that found that the invalid 2012 testament was not effective as an authentic act that could revoke the May 24, 2007 olographic testament, and the appellate court rendered judgment holding that the May 24, 2007 olographic testament was revoked; the matter was remanded to the district court for further proceedings. See Succession of Harlan, 16-1346, 2017 WL 2445187 (La.App. 1 Cir. 6/6/17) (unpublished).

         Xiaoping filed a writ application seeking review of the appellate court decisions, which we granted. See Succession of Harlan, 17-1132 (La. 12/5/17), 231 So.3d 624.

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Xiaoping contends herein that the appellate court erred in ruling that a revocation clause in an absolutely null notarial testament can revoke prior testaments and in ruling that the decedent's invalid 2012 testament was nevertheless in authentic form such that the revocation clause was effective and revoked all of the decedent's prior testaments.

         As applicable to the issues before this court, the salient facts are not in dispute. The decedent herein executed three wills: the first on March 9, 2000, the second on May 24, 2007; and the third on June 5, 2012. The 2000 will was a statutory testament under former La. R.S. 9:2442, the 2007 will was an olographic testament pursuant to La. C.C. art. 1575; and the 2012 will was a putative notarial testament under La. C.C. art. 1576 et seq. As a prefatory remark in each will, the decedent stated that he revoked any and all prior wills. The parties agreed that the 2012 will was invalid as a testament, since it did not have the attestation clause required by La. C.C. Art. 1577.[2]

         Thus, the only issues before this court involve the proper application of succession law to the undisputed facts. Questions of law are reviewed under a de novo standard of review. This court is the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the laws of this state. Soileau v. Smith True Value & Rental, 12-1711, p. 7 (La. 6/28/13), 144 So.3d 771, 777; Red Stick Studio Development, L.L.C. v. State ex rel. Department of Economic Development, 10-0193, p. 9 (La. 1/19/11), 56 So.3d 181, 187.

         The starting point in the interpretation of any law is the language of the law itself. M.J. Farms, Ltd. v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, 07-2371, p. 13 (La. 7/1/08), 998 So.2d 16, 27. See also Kelly v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Company, 14-1921, p. 10 (La. 5/5/15), 169 So.3d 328, 335 ("[W]e begin as we must with the words of the statute itself.").

         The text of a law is the best evidence of legislative intent. La. R.S. 24:177(B)(1). When the meaning of a law cannot be ascertained by the application of the provisions of Chapter 2 of the Preliminary Title of the Louisiana Civil Code (La. C.C. arts. 9 - 13) and Chapter 1 of Title 1 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes of 1950 (La. R.S. 1:1 - 1:17), the court shall consider the intent of the legislature. La. R.S. 24:177(A).

         As stated in La. C.C. art. 9, when a law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law shall be applied as written and no further interpretation may be made in search of the intent of the legislature. See also La. R.S. 1:4 ("When the wording of a Section is clear and free of ambiguity, the letter of it shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit."). When the language of the law is susceptible of different meanings, it must be interpreted as having the meaning that best conforms to the purpose of the law. La. C.C. art. 10. When the words of a law are ambiguous, their meaning must be sought by examining the context ...


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