New Hampshire Supreme Court Issues Mixed Ruling in Sibling Estate Squabble
In a December 1, 2022, Order, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire (the “Court”) rendered judgment on a matter concerning a sibling versus sibling fight over their mother’s estate. In the case of Gaetane Benner v. Claudetter Grenier (Case No. 2021-0506), Plaintiff Gaetane Benner (“Plaintiff”) appealed an order of the superior court dismissing her complaint against her sister, Defendant Claudette Grenier (“Defendant”) due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the New Hampshire probate laws.
Plaintiff’s complaint chiefly focused on two areas of alleged wrongdoing: (1) that Defendant, in her role as executor of their mother’s will, failed to provide Plaintiff with their mother’s wedding ring, in violation of the express provisions of their mother’s will and (2) Defendant, in her role as their mother’s power of attorney, misappropriated funds from several joint accounts held by Plaintiff and their mother. The superior court found that all of Plaintiff’s claims fell within the sole purview of the probate division, and as such, the superior court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to render judgment in Plaintiff’s case.
In its analysis, the Court began by discussing the respective jurisdictional parameters of the superior and probate courts. The Court explained that the superior court is a court of general jurisdiction. In the Matter of O’Neil & O’Neil, 159 N.H. 615, 622 (2010). Whereas the probate court division is limited to those specific areas of jurisdictions conferred by statute. Rogers v Rogers, 171 N.H. 738, 742 (2019). Specifically, New Hampshire law provides that the probate courts have jurisdiction over the granting of administration and all matters relating to the final distribution of estates and claims against the executor or administrator of those services and the interpretation and construction of wills. RSA 547:3, I (b)-(c). The Court found that in order to determine the proper forum of Plaintiff’s case, it would be necessary to evaluate the nature of each individual claim.
Regarding Plaintiff’s claims concerning her mother’s wedding ring, the Court held that such falls squarely within the jurisdiction of the probate court, as it specifically challenges the Defendant’s final distribution of their mother’s estate, and resolving this dispute depends upon the interpretation and construction of their mother’s will. In contrast, the Court found that Plaintiff’s claims concerning Defendant’s alleged misconduct in handling of funds in joint bank accounts of Plaintiff and her mother did not fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the probate court. The Court reasoned that resolving these issues does not require interpreting the will or codicil and the joint accounts were not part of the estate to be probated. Additionally, these claims are against the Defendant in her personal capacity, and not in her capacity of the executor of their mother’s estate.
Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims for return of her mother’s wedding ring and reversed the superior court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims concerning alleged mishandling of funds she held in joint accounts with her mother.
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