England v. SimmonsAnnotate this Case
Robert Haege died in 2006. Three months earlier, Haege made a will, in which he left his “personal assets” to his brother and sister, and in which he left his “business interests, both tangible and intangible, real or personal, connected to the business known as Traditional Fine Art, Ltd.” to his brother, sister, and two longtime employees. After Haege died, questions arose about the disposition of property associated with Traditional Fine Art, Ltd., insofar as Traditional Fine Art was a sole proprietorship and, therefore, had no legal existence separate and apart from Haege himself. The will was admitted to probate, and Sharon Haege England (sister) was appointed executrix of his estate. England failed to distribute any property to James Simmons and Elery Stinson, the two employees. The employees filed suit against England, seeking a declaratory judgment as to the meaning of the will with respect to the property associated with Traditional Fine Art. The trial court ruled in favor of England, concluding that, because Traditional Fine Art was only a sole proprietorship, the property associated with the business was merely the personal property of Haege. Simmons and Stinson appealed, and in a split decision, the Court of Appeals reversed. To the Supreme Court, England did not dispute the fundamental premise of the decision of the Court of Appeals, that a sole proprietor could separately dispose in his will of personal property connected with his sole proprietorship and his other personal property. Instead, England argued that Haege did not actually intend to separately dispose of any property associated with his sole proprietorship. Taking the will as a whole, the Supreme Court concluded that the most natural and reasonable understanding of the provisions of the will was that Haege left his personal property that amounted to "business interests . . . connected to the business known as Traditional Fine Art, Ltd." specifically including, but not limited to, membership certificates that he owned, to Simmons, Stinson, and his brother and sister, and he left all of his other personal property to his brother and sister alone. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.