In a recent opinion by the Kansas courts, In The Matter of the Estate of MICHAEL A. CLARE, Deceased, No. 112,762, one decedent – Michael Clare – shot and killed his wife, Deborah Clare. Michael died intestate, and the primary asset in his estate was a $250,000 life insurance policy. His wife, Deborah, was the beneficiary of the policy, and the couple had no children together.

Deborah’s biological daughter filed a petition to open an estate for her mother, and after speaking with a judicial assistant, secured a hearing date, and also published notice of both the hearing and notice to creditors. However, she failed to submit a proposed order for hearing for the judge to sign, as is required by Johnson County probate court’s local rules.

While hearing on Deborah’s estate was pending, Michael’s aunt petitioned to be appointed the administrator of Michael’s estate. Michael’s aunt chose the same hearing date and time as when Deborah’s petition for appointment of administrator would be heard, and submitted an order for judge’s signature. The order was signed.

Both petitioners were awarded letters of administration of the respective estates. About a month after appointment, the court entered an order determining that Deborah’s daughter had failed to commence proceedings in a timely fashion because she did not procure an order of hearing. A few days later, Deborah’s daughter, both in her individual capacity and as the administrator of the estate, filed a wrongful death action against Michael’s estate; she also filed a timely notice of appeal to the Court of Appeals from the court’s order. The Court of Appeals panel affirmed the district court, that decision was then appealed.

The issue on appeal was “whether the district court erred when it held that she failed to satisfy a statutory time limitation for filing a claim against the estate because she failed to obtain a written, signed judicial order setting the matter for hearing.” The Supreme Court of Kansas ultimately held that the Johnson County District Court, Probate Division, erred in requiring such an order pursuant to local rule.

 K.S.A. 59-2239(1), in relevant part, it states:“No creditor shall have any claim against or lien upon the property of a decedent other than liens existing at the date of the decedent’s death, unless a petition is filed for the probate of the decedent’s will pursuant to K.S.A. 59-2220 and amendments thereto or for the administration of the decedent’s estate pursuant to K.S.A. 59-2219 and amendments thereto within six months after the death of the decedent and such creditor has exhibited the creditor’s demand in the manner and within the time prescribed by this section, except as otherwise provided by this section.” (Emphasis added.)

So was a formal order for hearing required or were the statutory requirements met upon timely filing of the petition for issuance of letters of administration?
K.S.A. 59-617, which sets a time limitation for passing property under a will and which was the subject of Rickabaugh, K.S.A. 59-2239(1) requires only the filing of a petition in order to meet the time limitations. Neither statute mentions a requirement of causing the setting of a hearing. Deborah’s daughter did all that she was required to do under K.S.A. 59-2239(1):  she filed a petition within 6 months of her mother’s death.K.S.A. 59-2204 further states that a party commences a probate proceeding by filing a petition and then causing it to be set for hearing. While Johnson County’s local rules go a step further than the statute to state that this requirement is only fulfilled through submitting a proposed order for hearing for the judge to sign, ultimately, the Kansas Supreme Court disagreed. Previously, in Rickabaugh, the Court held that the probate code does not require a particular procedure for setting a hearing. “A local rule may not conflict with statutes or Supreme Court rules. Supreme Court Rule 105 (2015 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 200). The validity of a local rule is also subject to review for its reasonableness. See Frost v. Hardin, 218 Kan. 260, 264, 543 P.2d 941 (1975).”

The Court went on to note that, “[i]n addition, the local rules do not consistently preclude [Deborah’s daughter] from following the procedures that she took. She communicated with the court, which informed her that the matter had been set on a hearing docket. If the local rule required more from her, then it should not have set the matter on the docket and should have informed her that she needed to submit a written order. The court apparently did not follow its own rule. In Rickabaugh, we warned against setting “traps” for attorneys, and this is precisely what happened here.” Ouch. If the petitioner had followed the same exact procedure in another county, this most likely would not have happened, making the result unjust and consequently, an added barrier to justice.
Ultimately, the Court held these procedural obstacles as conflicting with statute and procedurally invalid. The Johnson County probate court’s order was overturned as violating probate statutes.