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Defendants in will contest must timely answer

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In an issue of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals has held that a will contest is a civil action and a defendant in this type of action is required to file an answer or plead to a complaint as provided by the state’s trial rules.

Siblings Rod and Marshall Avery appealed the default judgment against them in a will contest initiated by their sister Trina Avery. Trina served the brothers with summonses and copies of the complaint with Trial Rule 4. Neither brother appeared, answered, or pleaded in the will contest, and Trina filed a motion for default judgment. The brothers filed a motion to dismiss, claiming they didn’t have to file an answer. The trial court entered default judgment against them.

In Rod L. Avery, et al. v. Trina R. Avery, No. 49A05-1004-PL-320, the appellate court had to decide whether interested parties to a will contest are required to file an answer to the complaint. The Probate Code is silent on this issue, but the judges looked to Robinson v. Estate of Hardin, 587 N.E.2d 683, 685 (Ind. 1992), which held that Trial Rules 4 through 4.16 are applicable to will contests as well as Trial Rule 7(A).

“Again, a will contest is separate from the administration of an estate, and the executor and ‘all other persons beneficially interested in the will’ are made defendants in a will contest. See I.C. § 29-1-7-17,” wrote Judge Edward Najam. “Accordingly, we hold that, as with any civil complaint, a defendant in a will contest is required to file an answer or otherwise plead within the time provided under Trial Rule 6.”

The judges declined to hold that Indiana Code Section 29-1-1-10 applies to probate proceedings related to will contests. That section applies to proceedings related to the administration of a decedent’s estate, wrote Judge Najam.
 

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  2. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood has stated in “The Rule of Law in Times of Stress” (2003), “that neither laws nor the procedures used to create or implement them should be secret; and . . . the laws must not be arbitrary.” According to the American Bar Association, Wood’s quote drives home this point: The rule of law also requires that people can expect predictable results from the legal system; this is what Judge Wood implies when she says that “the laws must not be arbitrary.” Predictable results mean that people who act in the same way can expect the law to treat them in the same way. If similar actions do not produce similar legal outcomes, people cannot use the law to guide their actions, and a “rule of law” does not exist.

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