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Succession of Liner

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

November 20, 2019

SUCCESSION OF JAMES CONWAY LINER, III

          Appealed from the Fourth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Ouachita, Louisiana Trial Court No. 2018-3832 Honorable Alvin R. Sharp, Judge

          J. GARLAND SMITH & ASSOCIATES By: James G. Smith Sarah M. Smith Counsel for Appellants, Jeffrey Hanks Liner and Laura D. Liner Centola

          MARTZELL, BICKFORD & CENTOLA, A.P.C. By: Scott R. Bickford Lawrence J. Centola, III Jason Z. Landry Jeremy J. Landry JOHN C. LAIRD, APLC By: John C. Laird Counsel for Appellee/Intervenor, James Conway Liner, IV

          Before WILLIAMS, COX, and STEPHENS, JJ.

          WILLIAMS, C.J.

         The appellants, Jeffrey Liner ("Jeff") and Laura Liner Centola ("Laura"), are two of the three children of the testator, James Conway Liner, III ("Mr. Liner" or "the testator"), and the appellee is their brother, James Conway Liner, IV ("Conway"). The appellants have appealed a January 29, 2019, order confirming the appellee's appointment as provisional administrator of the testator's succession and a March 25, 2019, judgment declaring the testator's 2015 will null based on the trial court's determination that the attestation clause of the will was invalid. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the trial court's confirmation of the appellee's appointment as provisional administrator, but reverse the March 25, 2019, judgment declaring the will null and remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

         FACTS

         Mr. Liner executed a will on June 11, 2013 ("the 2013 will"), in which he essentially divided his estate equally among his three children, Conway, Jeff, and Laura. On June 3, 2015, Mr. Liner executed a new will ("the 2015 will"), in which he revoked all prior wills and divided the estate equally between Jeff and Laura. Mr. Liner died on October 9, 2018. Shortly thereafter, his attorney, Anthony Bruscato, met with the three Liner children and read the 2015 will. Upon learning that he had been excluded from his father's estate, Conway announced his intention to contest the 2015 will.

         On November 27, 2018, Jeff and Laura filed a "Petition to Probate Notarial Will and for Letters of Testamentary." Attached thereto were copies of both wills. In their petition, Jeff and Laura sought probate of the 2015 will and the issuance of letters of testamentary to allow Jeff to act as the independent executor, as he had been named by the testator to serve in that capacity in both wills.

         On that same date, Conway filed an "Intervention in Probate"[1] in which he sought, inter alia, to have the 2015 will declared null and void, alleging that its attestation clause was invalid, and that Mr. Liner lacked the requisite capacity to execute a testament on June 3, 2015. Conway also made numerous specific factual allegations in support of a claim that his siblings "exerted undue influence and duress on the decedent to cause the 2015 Will to be an absolute nullity."[2] Conway further requested, inter alia, appointment as provisional administrator of the succession "upon his qualification as required by law."

         The trial court signed an order appointing Conway provisional administrator on December 6, 2018. Thereafter, Jeff and Laura filed a motion and obtained an ex parte order staying Conway's appointment pending a hearing on January 22, 2019. On January 9, 2019, Conway filed a motion which sought, inter alia, that the court set the amount of security and method of inventory to be taken as required by law for Conway to complete his qualification as provisional administrator. He also filed a motion to disqualify counsel for his siblings, alleging that since Attorney Bruscato was the notary who signed the 2015 will, his testimony would be required in this matter. These matters were to be taken up at the January 22, 2019, hearing.[3]

         After the January 22, 2019 hearing, the trial court entered an order, confirming Conway's appointment as provisional administrator, and letters of provisional administration were issued on February 22, 2019. Thereafter, on March 25, 2019, the trial court rendered a judgment declaring the 2015 will null. The trial court designated this judgment as a final judgment in accordance with La. C.C.P. art. 1915(B). The appellants, Jeff Liner and Laura Liner Centola, have appealed both adverse rulings.

         DISCUSSION

         Validity of the Attestation Clause in the 2015 Will

         In their first assignment of error, the appellants assert that the trial court erred in nullifying the 2015 will based upon its finding that the attestation clause therein was invalid. According to the appellants, the attestation clause in the 2015 will evidences its substantial compliance with the requirements of La. C.C. art. 1579(2).

         The appellants also urge error in the trial court's conclusion, in its written reasons in support of its March 25, 2019, judgment, that the deviations from the attestation clause requirements, whether minor or not, "when viewed in the face of allegations of 'fraud'-cause the 2015 testament in question to be rendered invalid. . . ."

         The appellee, on the other hand, urges this Court to affirm the trial court's judgment declaring the 2015 will to be null for failure to comply with the requirements of La. C.C. art. 1579, particularly in light of the alleged acts of undue influence and fraud on the part of the appellants raised ...


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