Claimant In Will Contest Not Entitled To Trial By Jury


Alaskan Lillie M. Rahm was in her early nineties when she first met handyman Robert Riddell, then in his mid-sixties. Their friendship grew quickly, and Mr. Riddell moved in with Ms. Rahm within a few months. Two years later friends and relatives instituted legal proceedings that lasted well past Ms. Rahm’s death.

When Ms. Rahm revoked a power of attorney naming her daughter as agent and transferred some of her money into a joint bank account with Mr. Riddell, her daughter began to ask questions about her mother’s finances. Ms. Rahm seemed to be confused and Mr. Riddell refused to allow her access to any information, so Ms. Rahm’s daughter filed a conservatorship petition. Four days later Mr. Riddell and Ms. Rahm were married.

That did not stop the legal proceedings, however. After a hearing the public guardian was appointed as Ms. Rahm-Riddell’s conservator. Shortly after that a domestic violence complaint was filed, alleging that Mr. Riddell physically attacked and verbally abused his wife. The public guardian moved her to an assisted living home in Washington; Mr. Riddell found her, removed her from the facility and took her to Oregon to live with him. He refused to reveal her whereabouts despite court orders; Ms. Rahm-Riddell died in Oregon in 1997.

It turned out that Ms. Rahm-Riddell had signed two wills after meeting Mr. Riddell. The first, signed shortly after their meeting, left her home, its contents and one-fourth of the rest of her estate to Mr. Riddell. The second, signed in Oregon just a few months before her death, left her entire estate to Mr. Riddell.

Ms. Rahm-Riddell’s family asked the Alaska courts to admit an earlier will to probate and Mr. Riddell objected. He insisted that the last will she signed was valid, and he demanded a jury trial as to her competence to make the will. Her daughter and brother argued that she was not competent at the time, that Mr. Riddell had unduly influenced her, and that the matter should be tried without a jury.

The Alaska court refused to grant a jury trial and ultimately ruled that only the will signed before Mr. Riddell’s appearance on the scene was valid. Mr. Riddell appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The general rule in Alaska (as it is in Arizona) is that civil matters are decided by the judge unless there is a specific statute or the common law (the rules predating statehood) authorizes a jury. Since will contests were unknown to the common law and no statute permits it, Mr. Riddell’s demand for a jury trial was properly denied. Furthermore, said the Court, the evidence was clear that Ms. Rahm-Riddell could not correctly identify the individual involved in her life at the time the will was executed. Mr. Riddell’s wills were struck down. Riddell v. Edwards, October 5, 2001.

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