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Fraud Under Missouri Probate Code; Common Law Fraud

There is a special cause of action that can be asserted for fraud when it is made in the context of a probate case. Section 472.013, RSMo provides as follows:

[w]henever fraud has been perpetrated in connection with any proceeding or in any statement filed under [the probate] code, or if fraud is used to avoid or circumvent the provisions or purposes of [the probate] code, any person injured thereby may obtain appropriate relief against the perpetrator of the fraud or restitution from any person, other than a bona fide purchaser, benefitting from the fraud, whether innocent or not.

There are a few important observations to make. Fraud under the probate code has no bearings on remedies relating to  fraud practiced on a decedent during his/her lifetime which affects the succession of the estate. The fraud must occur within the probate proceeding to be actionable. Any proceeding relying on this Section must be brought within two (2) years of the fraud being discovered — but no proceeding may be brought against a perpetrator of the fraud later than ten (10) years after the commission of the fraud. Perhaps most importantly, the plaintiff must be “injured” by the fraud in order to successfully make a claim. In re Estate of Caldwell, 794 S.W.2d 257, 263-64 (Mo. Ct. App. 1990) (requiring that the common law fraud elements of reliance on the truth of a representation and injury need to exist).

To give an example of how this statute would apply, consider a personal representative’s probate inventory or final settlement. When a personal representative is appointed to administer an estate under letters testamentary or letters of administration, he/she will have to file an inventory within thirty (30) days of appointment identifying all of the assets and liabilities of the estate. At the conclusion of the estate, a statement of account for the estate from beginning to end is often filed. A fraud under the probate code claim can be brought by someone if the accountings/inventories are false and the other requirements of fraud (e.g., injury, etc.) are present.

Remember further that the statutory claim for fraud under the probate code is limited to probate proceedings. Common law fraud is a similar claim but has broader application. The primary elements of common law fraud include  (1) a representation by the defendant that is false, (2) the plaintiff’s reliance on the truth of the representation, (3) the plaintiff’s right to rely on the truth of the representation, and (4) injury to the plaintiff proximately caused by the reliance. Next Day Motor Freight, Inc. v. Hirst, 950 S.W.2d 676, 679 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997).

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