Estate Planning

The Challenge

The following case arose from Tulsa County in 2006. In order to understand the details, you need to know the following: an intestate estate is one without a will; the Personal Representative is the person the Court appoints to gather all of the assets and prepare the estate for distribution to the heirs; and the Oklahoma statutes give a preference to the spouse as Personal Representative and a child after the spouse is disqualified.

A man died in Tulsa County without a will leaving a wife, son and daughter as his heirs. The daughter filed an intestate probate action requesting that she be appointed as the Personal Representative of the Estate. At the hearing, the spouse appeared and requested that the Court appoint her as Personal Representative instead. In support of her request, she referenced the statute that gives her a preference over any other person.

The Court took testimony and decided that the spouse was disqualified from serving as Personal Representative for “want of integrity,” the statutory reason for not following the preferences under statute. In support of this determination, the Court found that the spouse had barred the heirs from attending their father’s funeral and deliberately omitted their relations from funeral matters. On appeal, the appellate Court declared, “…as ‘unfair’ and as morally reprehensible as such behavior may be, it does not demonstrate the type of disqualifying dishonesty that is contemplated by the statutory concept of ‘want of integrity.’”

The appellate Court also referred to a California case where the attorney served as executor of an Estate. In that case, the attorney received a bar disciplinary reprimand and the fact there were ‘hard feelings’ between the attorney and the heirs was not a sufficient reason to find the attorney/executor lacking integrity. The Oklahoma Court then said, “we must likewise conclude the surviving spouse’s mistreatment of decedent’s son and daughter in regard to decedent’s funeral does not justify a finding that the surviving spouse is lacking in integrity.”

The lesson to be learned is that the decedent left it to Oklahoma law as to who should handle his Estate. Oklahoma law doesn’t necessarily give priority to the best choice but does give priority to some over others. The decedent in this case could have addressed the problem while he lived but it was left to his heirs to fight over more than his property.

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