Indispensable Parties Must be Joined in Estate Disputes, if possible

Smith v. Smith, [Ms. SC-2023-0264, Sep. 15, 2023] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2023). The Court (Wise, J.; Parker, C.J., and Sellers, Stewart, Mitchell, and Cook, JJ., concur) reverses the Talladega Circuit Court’s judgment in favor of Plaintiff Michael Smith. The Court holds that Michael’s living siblings are indispensable parties and should have been joined in the lawsuit, if possible.

Sammie Wells Smith, who had seven living children at the time of her death, had deeded certain tracts of real property to her son Michael prior to her death. However, several of Sammie’s children asserted that the signatures on the deeds to Michael were not Sammie’s signature. Ms. *4. Michael sought declaratory and injunctive relief and named as defendants “‘Arthur Smith, Estate of Sammie Wells Smith abc, designating any and all legal entities, and/or persons who or which claim an interest in’ [the property].” Ms. *4. Arthur Smith did not appear for trial, and the trial court entered judgment by default declaring Michael the rightful owner of the property. Ms. **6-7.

Arthur raised for the first time on appeal that his siblings were indispensable parties. Ms. *8. The Court agrees and reiterates that failure to add an indispensable party can be raised for the first time on appeal or even by the appellate court ex mero motu. Ms. **8-9, citing Mead Corp. v. [City of] Birmingham, 350 So. 2d 419 (Ala. 1997) and City of Gadsden v. Boman, 104 So. 3d 883, 887 (Ala. 2012). The Court refrains from expressing any opinion on the merits but emphasizes that “if the trial court determines that any of the remaining heirs cannot be made a party to the action, it ‘should consider the reasons [why any such heir] cannot be joined and decide whether the action should proceed in [any such heir’s] absence.’” Ms. *14, citing Ala. R. Civ. P. 19(b) and (c).

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