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In re Estate of Karmazin

Supreme Court of Nebraska

March 16, 2018

IN RE ESTATE OF BERNADINE M. KARMAZIN, DECEASED.
v.
JUDY O'SULLIVAN, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF BERNADINE M. KARMAZIN, DECEASED, APPELLANT AND CROSS-APPELLEE. DENISE BAUMGART AND KENNETH KARMAZIN, APPELLEES AND CROSS-APPELLANTS,

          1. Decedents' Estates: Appeal and Error. An appeal from the county court's allowance or disallowance of a claim in probate will be heard as an appeal from an action at law. In reviewing a judgment of the probate court in a law action, an appellate court does not reweigh evidence, but considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the successful party and resolves evidentiary conflicts in favor of the successful party, who is entitled to every reasonable inference deducible from the evidence. The probate court's factual findings have the effect of a verdict and will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.

         2. Judgments: Appeal and Error. On a question of law, an appellate court is obligated to reach a conclusion independent of the determination reached by the court below.

         3. Contracts. The meaning of a contract and whether a contract is ambiguous are questions of law.

         4. Standing: Jurisdiction. Standing requires that a litigant have such a personal stake in the outcome of a controversy as to warrant invocation of a court's jurisdiction and justify the exercise of the court's remedial powers on the litigant's behalf.

         5. Pleadings. The pleadings in a cause are not mere ordinary admissions for the purposes of use in that suit, but are judicial admissions.

         6. Pleadings: Evidence: Waiver. In effect, pleadings are not a means of evidence, but a waiver of all controversy, so far as the opponent may desire to take advantage of them, and therefore, a limitation of the issues.

          [299 Neb. 316] 7. Appeal and Error. A party cannot complain of error which the party has invited the court to commit.

         8. Actions: Pleadings: Parties: Joinder. Joinder or substitution of the real party in interest shall have the same effect as if the action had been commenced by the real party in interest.

         9. Property: Taxes. Real property tax liability rests with the owner or owners of the real property at the time real property taxes are charged, accrued, or assessed, i.e., due and payable.

         10. Contracts: Words and Phrases. A contract is ambiguous when a word, phrase, or provision in the contract has, or is susceptible of, at least two reasonable but conflicting interpretations or meanings.

         Appeal from the County Court for Hall County: Arthur S. Wetzel, Judge. Affirmed in part, and in part reversed and remanded with direction.

          Brenda K. Smith and Gretchen L. McGill, of Dvorak Law Group, L.L.C., for appellant.

          Mark A. Beck, of Beck Law Office, PC, L.L.O., for appellees

          Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, and Funke, JJ.

          Cassel, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A life tenant leased real estate to a remainderman for 1 year ending on October 31, 2015. The life tenant died in August. The principal issue is whether the lease clause requiring the lessor to pay unspecified real estate taxes made her liable for 2015 taxes that became due and payable on December 31. The county court allowed the remaindermen's claims for these taxes. Although two interpretations are possible, the one requiring the estate to pay taxes becoming due after the lease expired was not reasonable. We reverse that portion of the order and otherwise affirm.

          [299 Neb. 317] II. BACKGROUND

         Bemadine M. Karmazin (decedent) conveyed a remainder interest in certain property to Kenneth Karmazin (Karmazin) and in other property to Denise Baumgart. Decedent retained a life estate interest in the property.

         In 2014, decedent entered into two lease agreements with Karmazin. The lease terms required Karmazin to pay cash rent to decedent for land intended for crops, pasture, or hay. The leases were for a 1-year term, commencing November 1, 2014, and ending on October 31, 2015. They provided that "Real Estate Taxes will be paid by [decedent]." Karmazin's rent payments were due April 1, August 1, and November 1, 2015.

         On August 23, 2015, decedent died. After the commencement of informal probate proceedings, a notice to creditors published in a local newspaper stated that creditors of the estate must file their claims with the court on or before December 15, 2015, or be forever barred. The estate did not mail to either Baumgart or Karmazin (collectively the claimants) a copy of the notice to creditors.

         On December 15, 2015, an attorney for the estate wrote a letter to the personal representative regarding liability for real estate taxes. The attorney stated that because decedent died in 2015, the estate's obligation to pay real estate taxes ended with the real estate taxes that became delinquent in 2015, in other words, the 2014 taxes.

         On April 11, 2016, Baumgart filed an "Application to Determine Tax Liability." She alleged that in "late 2015, demand was placed upon the Personal Representative to pay the 2015 real estate taxes, " which resulted in the December 15, 2015, letter. She asked that the court determine the estate's liability for the 2015 real property taxes and require the estate to reimburse 2015 taxes paid. The estate disallowed the claim. On July 28, the claimants filed an amended application to determine tax liability and liability for rent paid by Karmazin. The estate also disallowed this claim.

          [299 Neb. 318] The claimants filed a petition for allowance of the claim. They identified the amount of the claim as "unknown." The estate objected. It alleged that the claims were barred under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 30-2485(b) (Reissue 2016). It also alleged that the claimants failed to properly file a claim because they did not identify an amount.

         During a hearing, the parties stipulated that the estate did not pay any of the 2015 real estate taxes on the property. Baumgart testified that she was a remainderman of certain property in Nuckolls County, Nebraska, that the property "became [hers]" when decedent died, and that she paid the 2015 real estate taxes. Karmazin similarly testified that he was a remainderman in real estate in Nuckolls County pursuant to a deed, that he became the sole owner upon decedent's death, and that he paid taxes and interest. Over objection, the court allowed the claimants to submit deeds at a later time showing life estate and remainder interests. The claimants subsequently filed an affidavit to which they attached copies of deeds evidencing the ownership of the relevant parcels of real estate.

         The county court determined that Karmazin did not timely submit his claim for rent. With regard to real estate taxes, the court stated that under operation of law, the liability for real estate taxes would lie with the owner of the property at the time the taxes became due and payable. However, the court determined that because the lease agreements controlled the lessor's and lessee's respective obligations to pay taxes, the law's default rule did not apply. The court found the leases to be ambiguous, noting that they did not specify the tax year. Ultimately, the court ordered the estate to reimburse Baumgart for payment of real estate taxes in the amount of $2, 097.74 and to reimburse Karmazin $8, 929.46, plus interest of $68.40.

         The estate filed a timely appeal, and the claimants asserted a cross-appeal. We moved the case to our docket.[1]

          [299 Neb. 319] III. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

         The estate assigns, consolidated, that the court erred in (1) determining the claimants had standing, (2) allowing testimony from the claimants regarding their status as remaindermen of the estate, (3) admitting deeds without proper foundation, (4) determining the claimants made a proper claim under the probate code, (5) determining the lease agreements were ambiguous, and (6) determining the estate must reimburse the claimants for payment of real estate taxes and interest.

         On cross-appeal, the claimants allege that the court erred in determining that Karmazin failed to properly file his claim for rent.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         An appeal from the county court's allowance or disallowance of a claim in probate will be heard as an appeal from an action at law.[2] In reviewing a judgment of the probate court in a law action, an appellate court does not reweigh evidence, but considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the successful party and resolves evidentiary conflicts in favor of the successful party, who is entitled to every reasonable inference deducible from the evidence.[3] The probate court's factual findings have the effect of a verdict and will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.[4]

         On a question of law, an appellate court is obligated to reach a conclusion independent of the determination reached by the court below.[5] The meaning of a contract and ...


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