The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kilbride
Docket No. 89386-Agenda 19-January 2001.
The primary question presented in this appeal is whether section 18-7(a) of the Probate Act of 1975 (Act) (755 ILCS 5/18-7(a) (West 1998)) or section 2-610 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-610 (West 1998)) applies when an estate files a nonspecific response to a probate complainant's claim, demanding strict proof of that claim. In February 1989, plaintiff, Peggy L. Parrish, filed a 10-count complaint against the estate of Budris Andernovics, alleging that Andernovics breached an oral contract to make a will. Subsequently, plaintiff argued that she was entitled to judgment on the pleadings because the estate's failure to deny explicitly her claim constituted an admission under section 2-610 of the Code of Civil Procedure. The estate argued that section 18-7(a) of the Probate Act allowed it to demand strict proof rather than directly admit or deny plaintiff's claim.
The trial court rejected plaintiff's argument, denied her claim on the merits, and ordered her to pay attorney fees as a sanction for failure to comply with a discovery order. The appellate court affirmed. 311 Ill. App. 3d 741. Plaintiff now appeals. We affirm and hold that a trial court has discretion under section 18-7(a) of the Probate Act to demand plaintiff prove her claim when an estate files a response neither admitting nor denying the claim, but demanding strict proof of it.
Plaintiff's complaint sought monetary damages and specific performance of an oral contract to make a will. Plaintiff alleged that she and Andernovics reached an agreement, allowing plaintiff to deed certain parcels of encumbered real estate to him. Plaintiff further alleged that Andernovics agreed to pay the mortgages on the parcels and deed the property back to plaintiff in his will, along with fee title to another parcel of property and a life estate in a third parcel.
Plaintiff filed her complaint in probate. Rather than admitting or denying plaintiff's claim, the estate's executor filed a nonspecific response that stated, in pertinent part, as follows:
"NOW COMES ROLF HACKMAN, duly appointed Executor of the Estate of BUDRIS ANDERNOVICS, deceased by Holland and Holland, his attorneys, to defend against the claim of PEGGY L. PARRISH against said Estate, and hereby demands strict proof of said claim."
Plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the estate's answer constituted an admission pursuant to section 2-610 of the Code. Following a hearing, the trial court denied plaintiff's motion. The estate then filed several interrogatories and a request to produce, and plaintiff effectively failed to respond to discovery.
Plaintiff sought interlocutory review in the appellate court under Supreme Court Rule 308 (155 Ill. 2d R. 308), arguing that she should have been granted judgment on the pleadings. The appellate court denied plaintiff's request for appeal. Meanwhile, the trial court entered an order compelling plaintiff's discovery responses. Nevertheless, plaintiff persisted in disregarding the interrogatories and requests to produce. Several months later, the estate filed a motion for sanctions. Plaintiff then renewed her motion for judgment on the pleadings.
As a sanction for plaintiff's failure to comply with the discovery order, the trial court dismissed plaintiff's complaint with prejudice. On review, the appellate court reversed and remanded, instructing the trial court to issue a more lenient sanction. In re Estate of Andernovics, No. 3-93-0510 (1993) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).
On remand, the trial court granted the estate attorney fees totaling $4,035. The trial court further directed that plaintiff and her attorney were jointly and severally liable for payment of the sanction. The trial court also conducted a hearing on the merits of plaintiff's claim. At the hearing, plaintiff submitted evidence only as to the value of the real estate and other items subject to the alleged oral contract to make a will. Further, plaintiff held steadfast to her position that the estate's answer constituted an admission. The trial court rejected plaintiff's claim, finding in part as follows:
"There is authority that in a suit for specific performance of a contract to make a will the evidence and the existence of the contract and its terms must be clear and explicit and so convincing that it will leave no doubt in the mind of the Court. Greenwood v. Commercial National Bank of Peoria, 130 N.E.2d 753, 7 Ill. 2d 436 (1955).
The Claimant elected to file a claim in this estate matter rather than a separate law suit. When the claimant files a claim in an estate [proceeding,] the Probate Act [citation] applies. It has been suggested that the representatives of an estate must be allowed a great deal of latitude in filing answers to claims. The Probate Act specifically sets forth that a claim which is presented by the claimant or his attorney or to which no pleading has been filed within the time provided by the Act may be taken as proved or the Court may require the claimant to prove his claim. Here the Executor in his Answer demanded that the claim be proven. When the claimant filed the claim under the Probate Act the claimant must comply with that Act. Therefore, if a claim is filed in probate, the Probate Act applies. The Probate Act and the Code of Civil Procedure recommend that sections be liberally construed to the end that controversies and rights of the parties may be speedily and fairly determined.
Arguably, the Answer filed by the Estate is an admission under [section 2-610(b) of the] Code ***. However, this Court finds that the admission is as to facts well pleaded and not as [to] conclusions of law. This Court further *** exercise[s] its discretion *** to require that the Claimant prove her claim notwithstanding any admission made by the Estate. 755 ILCS 5/18-7(a). ***
The claim in this case is anything but routine. As a result the Claimant should have submitted her cause and proved her claim. She has not done so. ...