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Riggs v. Hill

Court of Appeals of Indiana

October 3, 2017

Milana Staletovich Riggs, Appellant-Claimant,
v.
Cynthia Hill, in her capacity as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Leon O. Riggs, Appellee-Respondent

         Appeal from the Marion Superior Court The Honorable Steven R. Eichholtz, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 49D08-1601-EU-2099.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Marvin Mitchell Richard J. Dick Mitchell Dick McNelis, LLC Indianapolis, Indiana.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE R. Brock Jordan Densborn Blachly LLP Indianapolis, Indiana.

          BAKER, JUDGE.

         [¶1] Milana Stelatovich Riggs was married to Leon Riggs in 1968. In 1969, a Mexican court issued a document purporting to dissolve their marriage. In 1973, Milana and Leon filed cross-petitions to dissolve the marriage; neither petition was resolved. In 1977, Leon filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration as to the validity of the Mexican dissolution document; this pleading also remained unresolved. From 1970 until 2015, Leon filed his taxes as a single individual and structured his finances and business as though he were single. In 2015, after Leon had been suffering from dementia for some time, Milana filed a petition to dissolve the marriage. Before that proceeding could be resolved, Leon died. After his death, Milana filed an election to take against the will as a surviving spouse in the probate action. The personal representative of Leon's estate filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Milana was barred by equitable doctrines from electing to take against the will as a surviving spouse.

         [¶2] The probate court granted summary judgment in favor of the personal representative, and Milana now appeals. She argues that the probate court erroneously struck some of her designated evidence based upon the Dead Man's Statute and that summary judgment is not warranted on the doctrine of laches. Finding no error, we affirm.

         Facts

         [¶3] As this court explained in a related dissolution appeal, "Leon and Milana were married in April 1968, and they lived together as husband and wife for one year. In April 1969, the couple separated and never again lived together. There were no children of the marriage." Riggs v. Riggs, 49A02-1605-DR-1057, slip op. p. 2 (Ind.Ct.App. May 22, 2017), trans. denied.

         [¶4] In 1969, Milana went to Mexico and met with an attorney. A Mexican court issued a divorce decree in December 1969. In 1969, Leon's tax filing status was married; from 1970 until his death in 2015, his filing status was single. In 1973, Milana filed a petition in Indiana to dissolve the parties' marriage; Leon filed a cross-claim seeking the same relief. In 1977, Leon filed a complaint for a declaratory judgment seeking a determination of the validity of the Mexican divorce decree. Neither the 1973 nor the 1977 actions proceeded to an ultimate determination, leaving open the question of the validity of the Mexican decree.

         [¶5] In 2015, Milana filed another petition to dissolve the marriage. By that time, Leon was suffering from dementia, required constant care, and was not competent to participate in the dissolution action. Id. Leon died testate on December 4, 2015; at the time of his death, no dissolution decree had been entered. The trial court dismissed the dissolution action for lack of jurisdiction following Leon's death; Milana appealed that determination and this Court affirmed. Id.

         [¶6] Following Leon's death, Leon's daughter, Cynthia Hill, was appointed personal representative of his estate (the Personal Representative). On February 24, 2016, Milana filed an election to take against Leon's will, claiming to have been married to Leon at the time of his death, renouncing all provisions in his will, and electing to take her legal share in his estate. She also filed claims against his estate, seeking compensation under five separate theories.

         [¶7] On March 29, 2016, the Personal Representative filed a motion to strike Milana's election to take against the will, and on May 6, 2016, the probate court agreed to treat the motion as a summary judgment motion. In the summary judgment motion, the Personal Representative argued that the equitable doctrines of laches, unclean hands, and equitable estoppel prevent Milana from taking against the will as Leon's surviving spouse.

         [¶8] Milana responded in opposition to summary judgment, designating her own affidavit and portions of her deposition from the 1970s litigation in support. The Personal Representative moved to strike Milana's affidavit and deposition pursuant to the Indiana Dead Man's Statute. The probate court granted the motion to strike. Milana also filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on October 20, 2016, arguing that she is entitled to relief on her election against the will as a matter of law and that the Personal Representative is estopped from arguing that the Mexican divorce decree was valid.

         [¶9] Following a hearing, the probate court granted the Personal Representative's summary judgment motion and denied Milana's cross-motion for summary judgment on February 14, 2017. In relevant part, the probate court found and concluded as follows:

The Court agrees with the Personal Representative's position that the issue before this court is not to determine whether or not the Mexican decree is valid. The issue before the court is whether or not Milana or the estate are barred from seeking or contesting the spousal election as a result of the application of the equitable doctrines of laches, estoppel, or unclean hands.
***
. . . The personal representative has failed to show Milana's claim is barred by estoppel or unclean hands.
The deciding issue in this case is whether or not Milana is barred from claiming against the estate as the surviving ...

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