United States District Court, D. Utah
RICHARD J. SIMPKINS, Plaintiff,
TERRI SIMPKINS WRIGHT, Defendant.
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION IN PART AND
N. PARRISH UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.
Richard J. Simpkins, proceeding pro se, sued defendant Terri
Simpkins Wright, alleging tortious interference with his
expected inheritance and breach of fiduciary duty. At the
heart of the dispute is Simpkins’s allegation that
Wright improperly obtained possession of assets of his
deceased father, Richard E. Simpkins (the
“decedent”), depriving him of his inheritance.
moved to dismiss the claims against her under Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). [Docket 20]. Simpkins filed a
Motion to Amend/Correct, [Docket 14], and a Motion to Change
Venue, [Docket 34]. Magistrate Judge Romero issued a Report
and Recommendation suggesting that Wright’s motion be
granted and that the action be dismissed because the federal
probate exception applies to this case or, in the
alternative, because Simpkins failed to state a claim upon
which relief can be granted. Judge Romero further recommended
that Simpkins’s motions be denied. Simpkins filed an
objection to the Report and Recommendation. [Docket 41].
Thus, the court “must determine de novo” whether
his objection has merit. Fed R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3).
survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain
sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state
a claim to relief that is plausible on its
face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6)
motion to dismiss, courts may consider not only the complaint
itself, but also attached exhibits and documents incorporated
into the complaint by reference.” Smith v. United
States, 561 F.3d 1090, 1098 (10th Cir. 2009) (citations
burden is on the plaintiff to frame a complaint with enough
factual matter (taken as true) to suggest that he or she is
entitled to relief.” Robbins v. Oklahoma ex rel.
Dep’t of Human Servs., 519 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th
Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). “Threadbare recitals of
the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere
conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Iqbal,
556 U.S. at 678.
Federal Probate Exception
first objects to Judge Romero’s conclusion that each of
Simpkins’s causes of action is subject to the probate
exception and thus is outside of the scope of this
court’s jurisdiction. He argues that this case does not
fall within the probate exception because the account at
issue was a payable-on-death (“P.O.D.”) account.
Because such an account is a non-probate transfer under Utah
law, Utah Code § 75-6-106, Simpkins contends that any
dispute over the account is outside of the scope of the
probate exception. The court concludes that Simpkins’s
objection has merit.
the federal probate exception, “a federal court has no
jurisdiction to probate a will or administer an estate”
or “to disturb or affect the possession of property in
the custody of a state court.” Markham v.
Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 494 (1946). More specifically, this
exception “reserves to state probate courts the probate
or annulment of a will and the administration of a
decedent’s estate; it also precludes federal courts
from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the
custody of a state probate court.” Marshall v.
Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 311–12 (2006).
United States Supreme Court has made clear, however, that the
scope of the federal probate exception is quite narrow.
Id. at 305. “[F]ederal courts of equity have
jurisdiction to entertain suits in favor of . . . claimants
against a decedent’s estate to establish their
claims” as long as the court does not “interfere
with the probate proceedings or assume general jurisdiction
of the probate or control of the property in the custody of
the state court.” Markham, 326 U.S. at 494
(citations omitted). Thus, an action that affects the
distribution of estate assets, but that does not actually
constitute the disposal of assets in the custody of the state
court, does not fall under the probate exception. Dunlap
v. Nielsen, 771 Fed.App’x 846, 850 (10th Cir.
2019); see also Osborn v. Griffin, 865 F.3d 417, 435
(6th Cir. 2017) (“[P]roperty that a party
removes from a decedent’s estate prior to his
death is not part of the res that is distributed by
the probate court.”).
court finds persuasive the position of the Sixth Circuit in
Wisecarver v. Moore, 489 F.3d 747 (6th Cir. 2007).
In that case, the Sixth Circuit held that the probate
exception did not bar a plaintiff from bringing in personam
claims against defendants for assets that had been
transferred to the defendants during the decedent’s
lifetime. Id. at 750. Those assets, the court
reasoned, were not part of the probate estate. Id.
Thus, any dispute over them did not infringe on the state
probate court’s disposition of the estate. Id.
Simpkins argues that Wright improperly came into possession
of the decedent’s assets pursuant to acts occurring
during the decedent’s lifetime. Thus, the account at
issue is specifically outside of the scope of the estate.
See Utah Code § 75-6-106; see also In re
Estate of Uzelac, 178 P.3d 347, 353 (Utah Ct. App. 2008)
(“POD accounts are held outside of probate and transfer
upon death to the payee.”). And a dispute over
Wright’s interest in assets that are not a part of the
probate estate is not within the scope of the probate
exception, even though the district court’s decision
relating to ownership of the assets may be binding on a state
probate court. See Markham, 326 U.S. at 494.
Simpkins’s claim rests on the proposition that he
should have inherited the funds intestate, the actual dispute
centers on Wright’s alleged tortious conduct and her
interest in assets outside of the estate. Simpkins’s
alleged right to inherit the property may make this action
ancillary to a hypothetical state probate court proceeding,
but it does not transform the entire dispute into an estate
administration. So long as this court does not engage in the
actual task of administering an estate, the court has
jurisdiction to adjudicate the rights to the P.O.D. account.
See Markham, 326 U.S. at 494 (holding that federal
courts can exercise jurisdiction to adjudicate rights in
property in the custody of a state probate court, so long as
they do not interfere with that court’s ...