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Proponent of Invalid Will Must Pay Attorney’s Fees to Family

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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.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.