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Moore v. Graybeal

March 10, 1988


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware, Civil Action No. 86-0252.

Weis, Greenberg, and Aldisert, Circuit Judges.

Author: Greenberg


GREENBERG, Circuit Judge

This matter is before this court on appeal from an order dismissing the complaint of appellant Barbara Purse Moore (Moore) for lack of jurisdiction in this action related to the distribution of a decedent's estate. The material facts are as follows. Jean L. Purse (Purse), a retired school teacher, was married to Thomas Scott Purse who died December 12, 1955 devising a substantial estate to her. Thomas had previously been married and Moore is a granddaughter from that marriage and is thus related to Purse as a step granddaughter. Purse's closest relative and possible heir at law is a distant cousin who is thought to reside in California.

On October 18, 1979 Purse, a Delaware resident, executed a will, allegedly prepared by the Bank of Delaware (bank), naming Moore and her children as her principal beneficiaries. On July 24, 1984 Purse executed another will, also allegedly prepared by the bank, revoking the prior will and devising the bulk of her estate to Dr. C. Edward Graybeal and Milford Memorial Hospital.*fn1 The 1979 and 1984 wills also made certain small bequests not germane to this appeal. In addition to devising the substantial portion of her estate by the 1984 will, Purse, by written memoranda directed that certain of her tangible personal property should be distributed to various persons including Dr. Graybeal and his wife, Ruth Graybeal. Purse died on January 4, 1986 at the Milford Memorial Hospital (hospital) and her will was admitted to probate in Sussex County on January 16, 1986.

On June 5, 1986, Moore, a citizen of Colorado, filed this diversity action against the Graybeals, the hospital, the bank and the Sussex County Register of Wills. She alleged that Purse died from cancer of January 4, 1986 at the hospital when she was 83 years old and that the bank had been appointed executor under the July 24, 1984 will on January 16, 1986. Moore asserted that Dr. Graybeal had treated Purse for approximately ten years during which she was a patient on several occasions at the hospital. Moore set forth her relationship to Purse through Purse's marriage and indicated that Thomas Scott Purse was the source of Purse's assets. Moore further alleged that, "prior to the Will of 1984 of Jean L. Purse" Moore had been the beneficiary by a trust provision of a majority of Purse's property, She indicated she had a close relationship with Purse. She asserted that Purse was incompetent when the 1984 will was executed, prior to her death there had been substantial transfers of Purse's assets, the bank had a duty to reclaim and marshal these assets, and Dr. Graybeal and the hospital used undue influence to cause Purse to be alienated from her and to become Purse's beneficiaries. Moore asked that the July 24, 1984 will "be set aside," Graybeal and the hospital "be declared to be improper beneficiaries" of Purse, and the "Will existing before 1984" be reinstated. She also asked that the distribution be made under Purse's prior will.

On July 3, 1986, the Graybeals, the hospital and the bank filed a motion to dismiss. On August 1, 1986 Moore filed a motion for leave to amend the Complaint. Her proposed amended complaint added her children as plaintiffs and, though no relief was sought against them, named the specific legatees under the July 24, 1984 will as defendants. The proposed amended complaint repeated the allegations of the original complaint. In general Moore alleged that Purse was incompetent when the will was executed, the bank had been Purse's advisor and was aware of her condition but nevertheless prepared her will, Moore and her children had been deprived of their rightful inheritance which prior to the 1984 will had been left to them in trust, and Dr. Graybeal and the hospital wrongfully used their positions of trust to influence Purse unduly and completely control her with drugs, which had the effect of alienating Purse from Moore so that Moore and her children were deprived of their rightful inheritances. The proposed amended complaint emphasized the duty that Dr. Graybeal and the hospital owed to Purse and had allegedly breached. In the proposed amended complaint Moore asked that she be awarded damages of $975,000, the approximate value of Purse's estate, the will of Purse of July 24, 1984 be set aside, the Graybeals and the hospital be declared improper beneficiaries, the prior will be reinstated, or alternatively, that the distribution be made as provided in the earlier will. The proposed amended complaint also asked for punitive damages.

On October 2, 1987, the district judge filed an opinion on defendants' motion to dismiss. Moore v. Graybeal, 670 F. Supp. 130 (D. Del. 1987). Though he did not rule on Moore's motion to amend he said that he would test defendants' motion against the proposed amended complaint. Id. at 131. The judge pointed out that Moore had eschewed the Delaware statutory scheme for review of a will and thus the case addressed the power of a federal court in a diversity action "to entertain jurisdiction over cases concerning the probate or annulment of the probate of a will." Ibid. He pointed out that it was well-settled a federal court will not assume jurisdiction in an action to avoid a will or set aside its probate and that a court of equity is without power to set aside the probate of a will unless expressly authorized by statute to do so. Therefore a federal court would have no probate powers unless its state counterpart had that power. Id. at 132. But a federal court may entertain a diversity case that the state has authorized its courts to hear as an action inter partes independent of the original probate proceeding and apart from the ancillary exercise of probate jurisdiction. Ibid.

The judge then analyzed Delaware law to ascertain if this action could have been brought as an inter partes case in the state courts. He pointed out that in Delaware a will is filed with the register of wills in the county where the decedent last resided and it is then proved before the register. However, a person interested may contest the will by filing a caveat against its probate before it is proved or by filing a petition for review within six months after the will has been proved before the register or, if self-proved, within six months of its delivery to the register. Id. at 133; Del. Code Ann. tit. 12, ยง 1309(a) (1987). The judge concluded that Delaware provides for "a will contest only before the Court of Chancery which, through its Clerk, the Register of Wills, has either admitted the will to probate or has rejected the application for probate." 670 F. Supp. at 133. He further held that these proceedings are an essential part of the probate proceedings and do not create an independent cause of action and thus Delaware confines will contests to the original proceedings.*fn2

The judge then discussed Delaware case law which buttressed his conclusion. Id. at 133-34. In this regard he pointed out that Chancellor Seitz, now Judge Seitz of this court, held in Anthony v. Harris, 34 Del. Ch. 166, 100 A.2d 229 (1953), that in an action seeking to compel a defendant to purchase real estate, intervenors could not resist specific performance on the ground the vendors' title was derived from an invalid will, as a challenge to a will is exclusively confined to the probate proceedings so that the court would "not permit what amounts to a collateral attack upon the probate of a will." Id. at 169, 100 A.2d at 232. The judge concluded that Moore necessarily was attacking the probate of the 1984 will and thus as Delaware did not authorize an inter partes action the district court did not have jurisdiction 670 F. Supp. at 134. Consequently, on October 2, 1987 the judge signed an order dismissing this action. This appeal followed.

Moore contends that the district judge should have granted her motion to amend and decided the case with reference to the proposed amended complaint rather than the original complaint. She asserts that this is an in personam action against Dr. Graybeal and the hospital "for their tortious conduct in taking advantage of an aged and infirm person and diverting the legal title of property to themselves" rather than "an in rem proceeding attacking the probate of the Will." Thus the result would be "a money judgment" with any other relief being only "ancillary. " Therefore the district court had jurisdiction as federal courts may entertain actions by creditors, legatees and heirs against an estate to establish their claims. Thus, in Moore's view, the district judge's opinion which treated the action as an attack on the probate of the 1984 will "is not in point.

Moore further emphasizes that Dr. Graybeal and the hospital owed a duty to Purse not to take advantage of her. She also argues that Delaware recognizes the tort of intentional interference with an inheritance which she can demonstrate that defendants committed so she is entitled to a jury trial on the issue. She contends that she has no remedy under Delaware probate law as invalidation of the 1984 will could only result in intestacy and, as she is not related to Purse by blood, she could not inherit from her. Thus invalidation of the will would benefit only the cousin in California.

We, like the district court, are obliged to consider a federal court's jurisdiction in probate matters. Clearly, it is fundamental that federal courts have no jurisdiction to probate a will or administer an estate. Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 494, 66 S. Ct. 296, 298, 90 L. Ed. 256 (1946). Thus, they do not ordinarily have jurisdiction to set aside a will or the probate thereof. Sutton v. English, 246 U.S. 199, 205, 38 S. Ct. 254, 256, 62 L. Ed. 664 (1918). The application of these principles is demonstrated by Kausch v. First Wichita Nat'l Bank, 470 F.2d 1068 (5th Cir. 1972), in which the Court of Appeals affirmed an order of the district court dismissing for lack of ...

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