The identity of parties matters a great deal in litigation. The failure to sue the right person can have serious consequences. Even if a litigant has a solid case, naming the wrong party can prematurely end a case without the suit ever being heard on the merits. In some cases, courts permit amendments of lawsuits. In light of that, some may assume that a mistake may be overlooked or fixed by a court. Not so. For these reasons, it is critical to enlist the help of an experienced litigator when faced with an estate dispute.
The Virginia Supreme Court (the “Appellate Court”) handed down a recent decision that illustrates the calamitous consequences of naming the wrong party in litigation. The case is Ray v. Ready, Record No. 180060.
The facts of the case were straightforward. Husband made a will that excluded his Wife. He passed away. His will was admitted to probate. Wife filed a lawsuit in a Virginia circuit court (the “Trial Court”) seeking to claim her statutory elective share of his augmented estate. The elective share is a concept that arises under a statutory framework that, in general, permits persons excluded from their spouses’ wills to claim certain property from their estates. Such claims have specific time frames and procedures that must be followed closely.
Importantly, Wife’s lawsuit was styled Patricia L. Ray v. Estate of Keith F. Ready. The suit was brought against the estate of Keith F. Ready (the “Estate”), but failed to name the administratrix (the fiduciary appointed to administer an estate) Ms. Ready (the “Administratrix”), as a party to the action. Moreover, the Administratrix’s name did not appear in the complaint. The lawsuit also failed to mention the concepts of Administratrix or personal representative.
Wife purportedly served the lawsuit on the Administratrix. The Administratrix filed an answer to the complaint and asserted the affirmative defense of abandonment (a defense to the Wife’s elective share claim). The Administratrix signed the answer as Administratrix of the Estate.
The Administratrix later made a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it was filed against the Estate itself and not the Administratrix. Moreover, the Administratrix argued that no new party could be substituted as the party defendant because the Estate was not a proper entity to be sued in the first place. Accordingly, the Administratrix also argued that the only remedy was to dismiss the suit and allow Wife to file another suit against the Administratrix. The Administratrix also pointed out that the statute of limitations for Wife’s elective share claim had run out, thereby barring any new suit from being filed. The statute of limitations for Wife’s claim was six months after either (i) the admission to probate of the will, or (ii) the qualification of the Administratrix upon the estate, whichever occurs later.
Wife argued that the Trial Court should simply amend the suit to add the Administratrix as the party defendant. Wife also pointed out that the Administratrix had notice of the claim since she had served the Administratrix with the suit.
The Trial Court held that Wife’s suit, having been brought against the wrong party (and a party incapable of being sued), was a nullity. The Trial Court also held that the suit could not be amended because no proper party was named in the lawsuit. Accordingly, the Trial Court dismissed the suit.
On appeal, Wife argued that the error was a mere misnomer and the Trial Court should simply amend the lawsuit as opposed to dismissing it.
The Appellate Court made clear that litigants have a duty to investigate the proper parties to sue or be sued. Additionally, the Appellate Court pointed out that all suits must be brought by and against living parties, in either their individual or representative capacities. The Appellate Court also held that suits against estates or deceased individuals must be brought against the personal representative of such parties.
While the Appellate Court recognized that Virginia law permits the amendment of suits when brought against the wrong parties in some cases, it held that in order to toll (pause) the statute of limitations, the suit must have been brought against a proper party in the first place. The Appellate Court also stated that a misnomer occurs when the right individual is incorrectly named, not when a wholly wrong defendant is named. The Appellate Court also pointed out that a personal representative and the estate for which it is responsible are two separate and distinct entities.
The Appellate Court also analyzed Virginia Code Section 8.01-6.3, which requires lawsuits brought by or against fiduciaries be styled as something substantially similar to: “Fiduciary Name, as (sort of fiduciary relationship), (name of the subject of the fiduciary relationship)”.
In some circumstances, Virginia law permits amendments to lawsuits to relate back to the initial filing in order to avoid the expiration of the statute of limitations. However, the Appellate Court pointed out that an amendment to a party’s name may only be made in this sort of case if the proper party is named, but does not otherwise conform to the above-described styling convention. Here, as the Appellate Court pointed out, the proper party (the Administratrix) was not named at all in either the style or in the lawsuit. Accordingly, the Appellate Court decided that the suit could not be amended to relate back to the time of filing. Accordingly, the statute of limitations for Wife’s claim could not be tolled. Wife’s elective share claim was therefore time-barred.
This case serves as a stark reminder of the potential procedural pitfalls of litigation generally, and estate litigation specifically. When faced with an estate dispute, one should seriously consider enlisting the assistance of an experienced estate litigator.