COA again reverses for ex-wife in dispute over late husband’s will   

An Indiana Court of Appeals panel has again reversed for a woman who claimed her ex-husband did not die intestate, holding that a probate court did not engage in the proper analysis to determine whether she rebutted whether the man destroyed his will with the intent to revoke it.

Christal Trowbridge claimed her late ex-husband, Everett Trowbridge, left her a handwritten last will and testament form will that was signed, written and notarized, which also included designation of a combination to a safe. Christal claimed the will entitled her to a 25% share of a Chase Bank retirement plan, as well as remaining property — a residence, personal property, a vehicle and an Edward Jones retirement plan.

But Everett’s brother and personal representative of the estate, Michael Trowbridge, objected to the purported will. Following a hearing, Clark Circuit Court issued an order denying probate of the will and declaring that Everett died intestate.

However, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed for Christal in a July 2019 decision, finding the trial court’s findings were contradictory, in conflict with testimony at the hearing, and misplaced the burden of proof, among other things.

The matter was remanded for further proceedings, but the probate court later entered a second order denying the probate of the will after concluding “by a preponderance of the evidence that [Everett Trowbridge] had the original Will in his safe shortly after its execution on April 30, 2012.” It further concluded that “the original Will could not be found, and that the estate is entitled to the presumption that [Everett Trowbridge] destroyed the Will with the intent to revoke it[.]”

Lastly, the COA concluded that Christal had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the proffered will is the original will, and therefore, Christal had not overcome the presumption of revocation.

On Thursday, a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court’s conclusion that the Estate is entitled to the presumption that Everett Trowbridge destroyed the will with the intent to revoke it. However, it also agreed with Christal that the probate court did not engage in the proper analysis to determine whether she rebutted the presumption that the original will was destroyed with the intent to revoke it.

“The probate court found that Christal failed to rebut the presumption because she did not possess the original will. But this is not the issue. If Christal possessed the original will, then there would be no need for the court to engage in the burden-shifting analysis in Estate of Fowler v. Perry, 681 N.E.2d 739, 741 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997),” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the appellate panel.

It then pointed out evidence in the record that could rebut the presumption, including that Trowbridge did not execute his will until after he and Christal were divorced and Trowbridge continued to list Christal as the beneficiary of his accounts as recently as the year before he died, among other things.

“But because the probate court did not engage in the proper analysis, it has not had the opportunity to determine, in the first place, whether these facts are sufficient to rebut the presumption. We therefore reverse on this issue and remand with instructions for the court to enter a new order applying the proper analysis,” it concluded. “No new hearing is necessary.”

The case is Christal Trowbridge v. In re the Estate of Everett Thomas Trowbridge, Michael T. Trowbridge, 19A-ES-3022.

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