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Jackson v. Claypool

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 19, 2017

Donna K. Jackson, Defendant Below, Petitioner
Tracie Stone Claypool and Joshua K. Stone, Plaintiffs Below, Respondents

         Raleigh County 14-C-161-H


         Petitioner Donna K. Jackson, by counsel John D. Wooton and Colleen C. McCulloch, appeals the Circuit Court of Raleigh County's July 13, 2016, "Amended Order Interpreting the Holographic Last Will and Testament of Ada Margaret Stone, Deceased, " wherein the circuit court awarded a one-half share of the Estate of Ada Margaret Stone ("the decedent") to respondents, the decedent's grandchildren. Respondents Tracie Stone Claypool and Joshua K. Stone, by counsel E. Kent Hellems and Benny G. Jones, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         The decedent died testate on or about August 18, 2004. She had executed a holographic will dated December 5, 1994, which was admitted to probate on or about September 2, 2004, and recorded in the Office of the Clerk of the County Commission of Raleigh County. Petitioner, the decedent's daughter, qualified as the executrix of the decedent's estate on or about September 2, 2004. The holographic will included the following language:

I bequeth [sic] to my daughter, Donna Kay Jackson and my son Larry B. Stone, II, all my real and personal property wherever located, all monies, all incomes present and future, my IRA certificates and to share equal in all of the above mentioned . . . and to anyone other than son and daughter, I leave one dollar $1.00 that may claim any rights to my possessions, etc. (Emphasis supplied by Testatrix).

         Respondents are the children of Larry B. Stone II ("Mr. Stone") who died intestate on or about September 3, 1996, prior to the decedent's death but after the execution of her holographic will. At the time of his death, Mr. Stone was not married. The entirety of the holographic will was a hand-written, single page document with approximately a quarter page of text.

         At the time of her death, the decedent owned a building construction company that developed numerous pieces of property. She also owned twenty-one parcels of property in Raleigh, Summers, and Mercer Counties. Further, she was the incorporator and vice-president of a business with petitioner, Window Wonderland, Inc.

         Respondents filed a complaint seeking declaratory and other relief on February 25, 2014. On July 13, 2016, the circuit court entered its "Amended Order Interpreting the Holographic Last Will and Testament of Ada Margaret Stone, Deceased." In that order, the circuit court stated that respondents alleged that because their father, Mr. Stone, died before the decedent, respondents are entitled to receive that portion of the bequest made by the decedent to Mr. Stone pursuant to West Virginia Code § 41-3-3, the anti-lapse statute. However, petitioner believes that under both the provisions of the will and West Virginia Code § 41-3-4, the bequest to Mr. Stone fails because the decedent provided in her will for "a different disposition" of her assets. Petitioner argued below that respondents should receive the sum of $1 each and the remaining portion of the bequest passes under the will to the other residuary legatee, petitioner. The circuit court concluded that § 41-3-3 is applicable and controlling of the disposition of the property under the decedent's last will and testament. Therefore, it found that respondents are entitled to the one-half share of the decedent's estate bequeathed to their father, Mr. Stone by that will. Petitioner appeals from that order.

We review this matter de novo, pursuant to our typical standard of review for declaratory and summary judgment actions as enunciated in syllabus point three of Cox v. Amick, 195 W.Va. 608, 466 S.E.2d 459 (1995), as follows: "A circuit court's entry of a declaratory judgment is reviewed de novo." We explained in Cox that "because the purpose of a declaratory judgment action is to resolve legal questions, a circuit court's ultimate resolution in a declaratory judgment action is reviewed de novo . . . ." Id. at 612, 466 S.E.2d at 463. In Poole v. Berkeley County Planning Commission, 200 W.Va. 74, 488 S.E.2d 349 (1997), this Court acknowledged that "both the entry of a summary judgment and the entry of a declaratory judgment are reviewed by this Court de novo." Id. at 77, 488 S.E.2d at 352.

Kubiczky v. Wesbanco Bank Wheeling, 208 W.Va. 456, 459, 541 S.E.2d 334, 337 (2000).

         Petitioner sets forth two assignments of error. First, she contends that the circuit court erred in not allowing "any witnesses to testify" despite the fact that witnesses were present and prepared to testify. Petitioner argues that Forrest Bowman, Esq., was prepared to testify about the facts and his "factual opinion" on the legal issue before the circuit court. She points to the circuit court's statement during a prior hearing to bring witnesses to testify. However, when the final hearing convened, the circuit court granted respondents' motion to prohibit Mr. Bowman's testimony. She argues that Mr. Bowman was qualified as an expert by his knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education. She further states that Mr. Bowman's expected testimony was both relevant and reliable.

         At the outset, we note that while petitioner asserts that the circuit court prohibited her from presenting "any witnesses to testify, " her argument focuses only on the prohibited testimony of Forrest Bowman. As we have previously stated,

"[t]he admissibility of testimony by an expert witness is a matter within the sound discretion of the trial court, and the trial court's decision will not be reversed unless it is clearly wrong." Syllabus Point 6, Helmick v. Potomac Edison Company, 185 W.Va. 269, 406 S.E.2d 700 (1991), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 908, 112 S.Ct. 301, 116 L.Ed.2d 244 (1991).

Syl. Pt. 3, Green v. Charleston Area Medical Center, Inc., 215 W.Va. 628, 600 S.E.2d ...

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