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Noble v. Neal

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

February 13, 2019

JUANITA NOBLE APPELLANT
v.
EARL L. NEAL, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF EARL LEON NEAL, DECEASED APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE SEBASTIAN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FORT SMITH DISTRICT [NO. 66FPR-17-589]

          Gean, Gean & Gean, by: Roy Gean III, for appellant.

          Dennis Sbanotto, a Professional Corporation, by: Dennis Sbanotto, for appellee.

          HONORABLE ANNIE HENDRICKS, JUDGE

          ROBERT J. GLADWIN, JUDGE

         Juanita Noble appeals the Sebastian County Circuit Court's April 18, 2018 order appointing administrator of the estate of Earl Leon Neal (decedent). On appeal, she argues that the circuit court erroneously recognized appellee Earl L. Neal, Jr., as decedent's sole heir. We affirm.

         I. Facts

         On October 17, 2017, Clyde A. Neal filed a petition for administration of the estate of decedent-Juanita and Clyde's brother, who died on September 16, 2017.[1] Listed in the petition as heirs of decedent were four sisters, including Juanita; Clyde; two nieces; and a nephew. On November 9, 2017, Earl L. Neal, Jr. ("Butch"), filed a response alleging that he was decedent's illegitimate son and only child. He cited Arkansas Code Annotated section 28-9-209(d) (Repl. 2012) and claimed that decedent had made a written acknowledgment of him in the form of the Whirlpool Corporation "Beneficiary Designation-Retirement Death Benefit," dated July 1, 2016 thus allowing him to inherit from decedent's estate. He alleged that the designation, which was attached to his response, was prepared by decedent, completed and signed by him, and describes Butch by name, Social Security number, relationship as "son," address, phone number, birth date, and gender. Butch also filed an affidavit to claim against the estate on November 9, asserting that as decedent's only child, he is entitled to inherit all of decedent's real and personal property.

         On March 20, 2018, Butch filed a brief in support of his claim against the estate, and on April 18, Juanita filed her objection. She argued that pursuant to section 28-9-209(d), Butch had 180 days from the date of decedent's death to commence and conclude his claim. She relied on Bell v. McDonald, 2014 Ark. 75, 432 S.W.3d 18, which she argued stands for the proposition that within the allotted 180 days, not only must the claim be filed but must also be judicially determined within said 180 days. Juanita also disputed that the beneficiary-designation form was a "written acknowledgment" in terms of the statute because it was not witnessed, notarized, or "acknowledged."

         At the hearing on the competing claims, Juanita testified that she and decedent were five years apart in age and were close, having grown up together. She said that she was not aware of any children of decedent and had seen Butch only once in her lifetime, at decedent's funeral. Clyde testified that he too had been close to decedent and had daily communication with him for fifteen years prior to his death. He said he had seen Butch three times-one time being at the funeral.

         Butch testified that he is fifty years old and had lived in Texarkana, Arkansas, for the last forty years. He said that his birth certificate lists decedent as his father, but it was not signed by decedent. He said that the beneficiary-designation form from Whirlpool displays his Social Security number and correct date of birth. He said that at no time did he believe someone other than decedent was his father. He said that he was twenty-two years old when he first met decedent in 1990, and he had been in touch with him occasionally since that time.

         On April 18, 2018, the circuit court appointed Butch as administrator of decedent's estate, finding that he was decedent's illegitimate son under the requirements of section 28-9-209(d)(2), having asserted a claim against the estate within 180 days and met the condition requiring a written acknowledgment stating that decedent is Butch's father. The circuit court found that Butch was the sole heir and entitled to the entirety of decedent's estate. This appeal timely followed.

         II. Applicable Law

         Although we review probate proceedings de novo, we do not reverse the circuit court's findings unless they are clearly erroneous. Burns v. Estate of Cole, 364 Ark. 280, 219 S.W.3d 134 (2005). We also review issues of statutory interpretation de novo and are not bound by the circuit court's interpretation of a statute. Id. However, in the absence of a ...


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