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In re Estate of Pierce

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division IV

December 13, 2016

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTOPHER H. PIERCE, deceased. VANESSA PIERCE, Petitioner/Appellee,
v.
COLIN PIERCE, CAITLIN PIERCE and CHRISTIAN PIERCE, Appellants.

          Mandate Issued: 05/11/2017

         APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF OKLAHOMA COUNTY, OKLAHOMA HONORABLE RICHARD KIRBY, TRIAL JUDGE

          Jeffery S. Ludlam, Trevor S. Pemberton, HALL & LUDLAM, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellants

          Kurt M. Rupert, Amy J. Sine, HARTZOG CONGER CASON & NEVILLE, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellee

          JOHN F. FISCHER, JUDGE

         ¶1 Appellants Colin Peirce, Caitlin Pierce, and Christian Pierce are the adult children of Christopher Hannah Pierce (Pierce), deceased. They appeal the district court's September 22, 2015 and October 21, 2015 orders denying their motions for partial summary judgment and granting Appellee Vanessa Pierce's motions for partial summary judgment. [1] Appellants' motions challenged the validity of Pierce's devise in his 2013 Will of an interest in real property to Vanessa and their minor son, CP, arguing that the devise was superseded by a prenuptial agreement between Vanessa and Pierce. Appellants also argue that the devise to Vanessa and her son was ineffective to exercise a power of appointment regarding the property granted to Pierce in a trust that held title to the property. The district court's ruling that the devise in Pierce's Will was not precluded by the parties' prenuptial agreement is affirmed. The district court's ruling that the devise to Vanessa of a life estate in the property was invalid because she was not an object of the power of appointment is also affirmed. Finally, we affirm the district court's ruling that Pierce did effectively exercise his power of appointment regarding this real property in favor of his minor son.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 On October 18, 1994, Virginia Mae Pierce, Pierce's mother, executed the Christopher Hannah Pierce 1994 Irrevocable Trust Agreement. Pierce was the primary beneficiary of the Trust. Title to a home located in Nichols Hills, Oklahoma, was held in the name of the Trust. The Trust granted Pierce the power to appoint by will all, or any part of, the principal of the Trust to or for the benefit of "the issue of [Pierce] living on the date of the exercise of this power of appointment.... However, that no appointment shall benefit directly or indirectly persons other than members of the restricted group who are the objects of this power...." Appellants and Pierce's minor son, CP, are members of the "restricted group" and objects of the power of appointment. Vanessa is neither. The Trust also provides in paragraph 4.12 that the "power of appointment... granted herein may be exercised by the holder thereof only if specific reference to the power granted herein is made in the document purporting to exercise such power."

         ¶3 Pierce and Vanessa were married in 1996. Prior to their marriage, they entered into a prenuptial agreement dated March 14, 1996. The Agreement provides that, if Pierce predeceased Vanessa, she would receive specified financial support, certain personal property and be designated as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. After Pierce and Vanessa married, they had one son, CP. Appellants are Pierce's children from his previous marriage.

         ¶4 On July 26, 2013, Pierce executed his Last Will and Testament. In addition to specific bequests to Vanessa, Appellants and CP, Article 2, Section 4 of the Will provides:

I own a beneficial interest in a Trust, said Trust having title to the property located [in Nichols Hills, Oklahoma]. I hereby give, devise and bequeath to my wife... a life estate in said real property.... The remainder of my beneficial interest in said property I hereby give, devise and bequeath to my son, [CP].

         Pierce died on June 16, 2014, and Vanessa filed a petition to probate his Will. The district court admitted the Will to probate and appointed Vanessa as personal representative of Pierce's estate.

         ¶5 In the first motion for partial summary judgment Appellants filed in the probate proceeding, they asserted that the 1996 prenuptial agreement superseded Pierce's 2013 Will and controlled the disposition of property to Vanessa. Appellants contended that, as a result, Vanessa agreed she would be entitled to only the property designated in that Agreement. Vanessa responded with her own motion for partial summary judgment. She argued that nothing in the prenuptial agreement prohibited her from receiving the assets specified in Pierce's Will. Rather, she contended that in the Agreement the parties merely released rights they might otherwise have had in each other's property. Vanessa maintained the prenuptial agreement was the "floor" level of support Pierce agreed to provide on divorce or death, and nothing prevented him from choosing to provide more for her in his Will than that minimum amount.

         ¶6 In their second motion for partial summary judgment, Appellants asserted that Pierce failed to properly exercise in his Will the power of appointment granted to him by the Trust. Specifically, Appellants argued that Pierce's purported devise of the Nichols Hills property in his Will violated paragraph 4.12 of the Trust because that devise did not "reference the power granted" in the Trust. In the alternative, Appellants argued that the exercise of the power failed because CP was not an object of the power contemplated by the Trust. Again, Vanessa responded with her own motion for summary judgment.

         ¶7 In two orders dated September 22, 2015, and October 21, 2015, the district court ruled that Vanessa was not precluded by the prenuptial agreement from receiving additional property from Pierce, and she was not an object of the power of appointment and could not be appointed a life estate in the Nichols Hills property, but Pierce had effectively exercised the power of appointment in his Will conveying the remainder interest in the Nichols Hills property to CP. Appellants challenge the ruling on the effect of the prenuptial agreement and the validity of the conveyance to CP in this appeal. [2]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶8 Title 12 O.S.2011 § 2056 governs the procedure for summary judgment in this case. A motion for summary judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. The de novo standard controls an appellate court's review of a district court order granting summary judgment. Carmichael v. Beller, 1996 OK 48, ¶ 2, 914 P.2d 1051. De novo review involves a plenary, independent, and non-deferential examination of the district court's rulings of law. In re Estate of Bell-Levine, 2012 OK 112, ¶ 5, 293 P.3d 964.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶9 As previously noted, Appellants raise two issues in this appeal. First, they contend the district court erred in holding that Vanessa is not precluded by the prenuptial agreement from receiving the property designated in Pierce's will. Second, they contend that the district court erred in finding that Pierce had properly exercised in his Will the Trust's power of appointment regarding the Nichols Hills property.

         I. Argument Regarding the Prenuptial Agreement

         ¶10 Appellants maintain that the express language of the prenuptial agreement controls and prohibits Vanessa from receiving the interest in the Nichols Hills property devised to her in Pierce's will. Appellants cite paragraph 2 of the prenuptial agreement, which provides:

Release of Property Rights by [Vanessa]. Except as hereinafter provided in paragraph 3, [Vanessa] hereby releases all rights in the property and estate of [Pierce] which she may have by reason of their marriage, whether by way of dower, statutory allowance, intestate share, will, homestead, or otherwise under the laws of any jurisdiction that may be applicable.

         Appellants argue that the only exception to Vanessa's release of all rights in Pierce's property and estate is contained in paragraph 3 of the prenuptial agreement. That paragraph provides, in relevant part:

3. Provision for Vanessa.... In the event that [Pierce] and Vanessa divorce (or in the event [Pierce] predeceases Vanessa at any time after their marriage to one another), [Pierce] or his estate shall pay to Vanessa as a complete and final division of property (support alimony) if divorce be applicable, and/or as her share of any marital estate if provisions for death be applicable:
In addition:
A. Vanessa will become beneficiary on an insurance policy on [Pierce's] life in the amount of $100, 000.00 (the "Life Insurance Policy").
Vanessa may take from the home any linens, kitchen items, furniture or gifts received by them in common, and in addition Vanessa ...

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