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Trowbridge v. The Estate of Trowbridge

Court of Appeals of Indiana

July 15, 2019

Christal Trowbridge, Appellant,
v.
The Estate of Everett Thomas Trowbridge, and Michael T. Trowbridge, Appellees.

          Appeal from the Clark Circuit Court The Honorable Andrew Adams, Judge The Honorable Kenneth R. Abbott, Magistrate Trial Court Cause No. 10C01-1807-ES-32

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT W. Edward Skees THE SKEES LAW OFFICE New Albany, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES Michael M. Maschmeyer Jeffersonville, Indiana John D. Cox LYNCH, COX, GILMAN & GOODMAN, P.S.C. Louisville, Kentucky

          BAILEY, JUDGE.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Christal Trowbridge ("Trowbridge"), the ex-wife of Everett Thomas Trowbridge ("the Decedent"), offered for probate his purported last will and testament. The Estate objected, and the probate court issued an order denying probate of the will and declaring that the Decedent had died intestate. Trowbridge presents a consolidated and restated issue which we find to be dispositive: whether the judgment is contrary to law due to the misplacement of the burden of proof. We reverse and remand.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] The Decedent died on June 6, 2018, survived by his father and his brother, Michael Trowbridge ("Michael"). On July 13, 2018, Michael filed a Petition for Issuance of Letters of Administration, asserting that the Decedent had died intestate.

         [¶3] On November 13, 2018, Trowbridge filed her Petition for Probate of Will and Appointment of Co-Personal Representative. She asserted that the Decedent had died testate pursuant to a will executed on April 30, 2012, shortly after the couple had divorced. The proffered will provided that Michael and Trowbridge were to be co-executors of the Decedent's estate. The will terms decreed that a Chase Bank retirement plan was to be divided 75% to Michael and 25% to Trowbridge. The remainder of the property - consisting of a residence, personal property, motor vehicle, and an Edward Jones retirement plan - was bequeathed to Trowbridge.

         [¶4] The proffered will was a form will with handwritten entries filling the blanks; it was signed, witnessed, and notarized. In one margin, there appeared a handwritten designation of a combination to a safe. On November 14, 2018, the personal representative of the Estate filed an Objection to Probate of Will.

         [¶5] On January 9, 2019, the probate court conducted a hearing at which three witnesses testified: Trowbridge, Michael, and the attorney for the Estate, Michael Maschmeyer ("Maschmeyer"). Trowbridge testified that she had proffered an original will executed by the Decedent. She further testified that she and the Decedent had last had contact shortly after the divorce, yet he had never removed her as the beneficiary of certain investment funds.

         [¶6] Without objection, the Estate's attorney testified in narrative form regarding his professional consultation with Trowbridge. He testified that Trowbridge had, after learning he was the Estate's attorney, brought into his office "a signed copy or duplicate of the original will" and she had "said, in essence, that it was a signed copy and the original was to be in the safe." (Tr. at 15.) In rebuttal, Trowbridge denied making a statement that the original will would be found in the Decedent's safe. Michael testified that he opened the Decedent's safe and found no will inside.

         [¶7] In closing argument, Maschmeyer asked that the probate court credit his testimony and find that the proffered will was a copy, such that the absence of an original would give rise to a presumption that the original had been destroyed. In turn, Trowbridge's attorney asked that the probate court find the proffered document to be the original will. The probate court expressed its inability to discern the originality of the proffered document and noted the absence of expert testimony.

         [¶8] On January 10, 2019, the probate court issued an order providing: "The Petition for Probate of Will and Appointment of Co-Personal Representative is denied, and the Objection to Probate of Will is ...


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