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Cote v. Cote

Superior Court of Maine, York

April 22, 2015

ROBERT M. COTE et al., Plaintiffs,
DONALD R. COTE et al., Defendants.


John O'Neil, Jr. Justice, Superior Court

I. Background

A. Procedural History

This case involves siblings disputing the substance of and rights to a deceased parent's property. Plaintiffs Robert, Rene, and Paul Cote and Madeline LaPlante ("the plaintiffs") initiated this action with a complaint alleging multiple counts for tortious interference with an expectancy of inheritance, undue influence, improvident transfers, and breach of constructive trust against Defendants Donald, Priscille, and Angela Cote ("the defendants"). The court dismissed all counts except for those alleging tortious interference with an expectancy. The defendants now move for summary judgment.

B. Facts[1]

Defendants Donald Cote and Priscille Cote are siblings; Donald and Angela Cote are husband and wife. (Def's S.M.F. ¶¶ 1-2.)[2] Donald and Priscille and plaintiffs Robert, Rene, Madeline, and Paul Cote are all children of Fern Cote and Pauline Cote. Fern died in 1991 and Pauline died on September 3, 2010. (Def's S.M.F. ¶¶ 2-3.) Plaintiff Paul Cote described Pauline as "frugal, " "active, " "strong willed, " and "stubborn" before her death. (Def's S.M.F. ¶ 22.) For example, Pauline apparently continued to climb ladders to shovel snow off her roof until 2003-2004. (Def's S.M.F. ¶ 25.)

In 2001, Pauline executed a will that bequeathed her entire estate to her children in equal shares. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 6.) Pauline's 2001 will appointed Donald and Priscille as the personal representatives of her estate. Following Pauline's death, Donald and Priscille were appointed co-personal representatives by the court and petitioned for an Order of Complete Settlement of the Estate on November 22, 2011. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 5-6.) According to documents from the estate administration proceedings, Pauline died with $14, 222.38 in two bank accounts, a number of personal items, and forty-two savings bonds with a total value of $27, 767.96. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶¶ 9-11.)[3] Funds from the bank account were used to pay estate expenses, which exceeded available funds. (Def. P.C.'s S.M.F. ¶¶ 8-9.)

In 1995, Pauline conveyed her home at 190 Saco Avenue, Old Orchard Beach, Maine, to Priscille and Donald as joint tenants. Pauline retained a life estate in the property. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 4.) The plaintiffs allege that the defendants hold $164, 000 in proceeds from a sale of that home in personal bank accounts. (PL's Resp. Def. P.C.'s S.M.F. ¶ 6.) The plaintiffs allege Pauline told them that funds from a sale would be distributed to all the Cote children.[4]

At the time Pauline died, she held several accounts that passed outside of probate: a Banker's Life annuity totaling $76, 502.66, a MetLife annuity totaling $21, 258.10, and a MetLife insurance policy totaling $18, 251.00. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶¶ 13-14.) Each account listed Donald and Priscille as pay-on-death beneficiaries. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 19.) In 2001, Pauline changed the beneficiaries from Madeline (LaPlante) and Jean Cote to Donald and Priscille. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 31.) Robert and Madeline do not know why the beneficiary form was changed. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶¶ 33, 40.) The defendants maintain that assets reported in the probate proceeding were all the assets held by Pauline at her death. (Def. P.C.'s S.M.F. ¶ 18.) The plaintiffs deny this and allege Pauline had "substantial" assets.[5]Robert Cote filed an objection to the Order of Complete Settlement of the Estate on January 12, 2012. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 7.) This suit was filed in February 2013. (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 8.)

Robert Cote alleged in his deposition that the defendants "manipulated" Pauline to "change everything into their names." (Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 28.)[6] Robert also testified that Fern and Pauline had a number of CDs that were intended to go to the Cote children. (PL's Resp. Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 30.)[7] Around 2008 or 2009, Robert inquired as to the status of Fern's old bank accounts and received no information from Donald or Priscille. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 34.)[8] The plaintiffs allege a number of other accounts existed and certain promises were made, including to help Paul purchase a tractor. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 40-44, 46-52.) Paul believed there was a money market account[9] at Saco Biddeford Savings. (PL's Resp. Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 36; PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 35). Paul's affidavit states:

At some point after 1999, my sister Priscille got power of attorney from my mother and put Donald's name on that account that my mother had set up for me. She took my name off the account.

(Paul Cote Aff. ¶ 15.)[10] Paul's affidavit also describes a number of accounts held by Fern Cote. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶¶ 69-72.)[11]

Renee and Paul Cote both testified that Donald and Priscille "controlled" Pauline. (PL's Resp. Def.'s S.M.F. ¶¶ 22, 24, 26.) Donald and Priscille were named as financial powers of attorney for Pauline in 1995. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 13.) Priscille managed Pauline's finances from 2006 until she died in 2010. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 8.) Pauline gave Angela Cote checks to cover heating oil costs. (PL's Resp. Def.'s S.M.F. ¶ 37.) Madeline alleges Pauline was not permitted to have a checkbook and had to ask Donald or Priscille for money to purchase gifts for family members. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 85.)[12] Pauline was the victim of a "scam" in 2006 that resulted in a withdrawal of $20, 000 from one of her bank accounts. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 15.)

Towards the end of Pauline's life, she was in a weakened state after suffering a stroke in 2008. Priscille sometimes locked Pauline inside her home alone. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶¶ 16-17.)[13] Priscille did not consult the other siblings about important decisions regarding Pauline and consulted only Donald about having Pauline move in with Priscille after her stroke. (Def.'s Resp. PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 18.) Affidavits by Paul and Robert claim Priscille, Donald, and Angela interfered with their efforts to spend time with Pauline. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶¶ 19-20.) Madeline tried to move in with Pauline, but was ordered out by Priscille. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶¶ 23-24.) Priscille moved in with Pauline and hired a caretaker, Helen, to care for Pauline while Priscille was at work. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 26.) During this time, Priscille apparently did not provide information to Robert about Pauline's welfare. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 32.)

Priscille had previously brought Pauline to an attorney, Mary Toole, who drew up the 1995 deed for the home, the power of attorney for Priscille and Donald, and Pauline's 2001 will. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶¶ 9-10, 14.) Paul later tried to arrange a family meeting of the Cote children to arrange for Pauline to get a new attorney. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 64-65.) Paul apparently sought to arrange this meeting because Pauline told him she wanted to remove Priscille from power of attorney and Donald from being executor of the will, but Pauline later changed her mind. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶¶ 62-63.)[14] When Priscille found out about the plan for Pauline to change attorneys at a family gathering, she grabbed Paul and said "you won't get this (change) without a fight from mind" (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 66; Paul Cote Aff. ¶ 35.) Pauline ultimately decided she did not wish to change attorneys. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶¶ 67-68.)

Paul alleges that Priscille told him he would "never get a penny" from Pauline's estate. (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 55.) After Pauline's death, Paul went to Donald and Angela's home to discuss the estate. Angela became agitated and shouted "when are all you losers going to accept the fact that Mom and Dad only wanted Donald and Priscille as children-and not the rest of you losers?" (PL's S. Add'tl. M.F. ¶ 60.) Donald then told Paul "if you don't like [what is going on with Pauline's ...

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