JANUARY 19, 2004 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 29
Edmond and Elma Crittell befriended Violet Houssien and, according to Ms. Houssien’s family, set about getting the older woman to write a new will. Some of the evidence in the later will contest proceeding indicated that they may have even forged her signature on the will and, in a bizarre twist, burglarized the office of the notary public in an attempt to hide their fraud. Even if Ms. Houssien actually did sign the will, the Alaska courts later ruled that she had lacked capacity to do so, and that the Crittells exercised undue influence over her.
After Ms. Houssien’s death the Crittells sought to have the will they had prepared admitted to probate. Not surprisingly, it would have left the bulk of her $1.59 million estate to Elma Crittell. Also unsurprising was the objection lodged by family members.
After a two-week trial to the court, the will was found to be a forgery and the Crittells to have exercised undue influence over Ms. Houssien. The court also ordered the Crittells to pay the attorney’s fees and costs for the family members.
On its first trip to the Alaska Supreme Court, the case resulted in a mixed holding. The trial court’s findings about the will’s invalidity were upheld, but the award of attorney’s fees was set aside and remanded. The state high court ruled that there is no automatic right under state law for a successful will contestant to recover attorney’s fees, though it did not rule out the possibility that fees could be awarded for “vexatious or bad faith conduct.”
After the appeal was completed the trial judge reconsidered his earlier award of attorney’s fees. Finding that the Crittells had acted vexatiously and in bad faith, he ordered that they pay fees totaling $338,668.35. The Crittells again appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.
In its second review of the case, the state high court reviewed the history of the litigation and the positions of the parties before and during the trial. The justices found that there was considerable evidence that the Crittells had acted in bad faith, and that it was proper for the trial judge to consider their fraudulent acts.
The Crittells argued that the effect of the court’s ruling was to impose punitive damages against them, and that there is no provision for such awards in probate cases. The high court disagreed with this argument, as well, though it expressed concern about the imposition of “financially ruinous” fee awards. However, if litigants proceed in bad faith, the entire cost of opposing counsel can be charged against them. Crittell v. Bingo, January 2, 2004.