COA: Suit against stepmother’s estate wrongly dismissed

A lawsuit brought against the estate of a deceased woman by her stepchildren has be reinstated by the Court of Appeals of Indiana after it found the dismissal of their suit was wrongly evaluated under Trial Rule 12.

When Jennifer Ivy and Tyler Bichler’s father, Jeffrey Bichler, died in November 2017, they sued their stepmother, Wanda Bichler, alleging she shot and killed him so she could collect his life insurance proceeds.

At the time of Jeffrey’s death, Wanda was a beneficiary for approximately $300,000 in benefits from Jeffrey’s life insurance policy. Jennifer and Tyler were named as personal representatives of their father’s estate.

His children, in their individual capacities, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Wanda in November 2019. She denied killing her husband and filed a counterclaim for defamation in December 2019. However, Wanda died in January 2020 and her estate, through its personal representatives, intervened in the lawsuit.

In April 2020, Jennifer and Tyler amended their complaint to add a second count for a state interpleader action for the life insurance proceeds. The amended complaint continued to name Wanda as the defendant rather than the recently appointed personal representatives of her estate.

The Gibson Superior Court granted an unopposed request from Wanda’s estate to intervene on the basis that Wanda, “who was the original Defendant in this action, passed on or about January 30, 2020.”

When Wanda’s estate moved to dismiss the underlying lawsuit pursuant to Indiana Trial Rules 12(B)(2), 12(B)(6), and 12(B)(7)  Jennifer and Tyler amended again, adding a claim seeking a constructive trust. But they still did not name the personal representatives of Wanda’s estate.

The trial court ultimately dismissed Jennifer and Tyler’s complaint citing Indiana Trial Rule 12(B), but the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed in a Tuesday decision.

It first noted that the plaintiffs are required to substitute as defendants the personal representatives of Wanda’s estate, “and their failure to do so in a timely manner may subject their suit to dismissal.”

“But there was no suggestion in the trial court that they failed to adhere to any deadline for substitution under Trial Rules 25 or 41(E), so their claims should not have been dismissed,” COA Judge Derek Molter wrote.

The COA also found that although the motion to dismiss was based on Trial Rule 12, that rule does not govern the failure to substitute the personal representative for a deceased defendant.

“Wanda’s Estate has not cited any cases affirming the dismissal of a claim under Trial Rule 12(B) based on the failure to substitute the personal representatives of a defendant’s estate (or other substitute parties),” Molter wrote. “Instead, dismissal is generally evaluated under Trial Rule 25, and on appeal, much of the analysis Wanda’s Estate provides is under that trial rule.

“This reflects a legal error in the trial court’s dismissal, and we must reverse and remand so that the plaintiffs may have the opportunity to substitute the personal representatives as defendants pursuant to Trial Rule 25. If they fail to do so, then dismissal should be evaluated under Trial Rules 25 and 41(E), not Trial Rule 12,” he concluded.

Thus, the trial court reversed and remanded in The Estate of Jeffery Bichler by Personal Representatives Jennifer Ivy and Tyler Bichler v. Wanda Bichler and The Estate of Wanda Bichler by Personal Representatives Kristie Cundiff and Linda Strickland, 21A-CT-752.

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