BUTTE — G.G. Verone is ready to come home to southwest Montana. And after years of legal wrangling, the Montana Supreme Court has brought her a giant step closer.
Ever since her aunt, Helen Edwards, died in 2013, Verone, a Butte native who has lived in California for decades after a Hollywood acting career, has been fighting over a will that left almost all of her aunt's $3 million estate, including a ranch near Sheridan, to a caretaker and a handyman, in essence disinheriting Verone, Edwards' only living relative.
Even after Verone won a jury trial in Madison County District Court that found the 2012 will had been made when Edwards, then 95, was under "undue influence, fraud or duress," District Judge Loren Tucker refused to admit the previous will, in Verone's favor, to probate.
Last week, a five-justice panel of the Montana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the jury verdict and found that Tucker had erred in not admitting the earlier will to probate and in refusing to award attorney fees and costs to Verone.
Verone was raised in Butte, but her uncle Jim and aunt Helen were like a second set of parents to her. Ranching at that time west of Butte, Jim Edwards in particular was close to his niece, whom he regarded as a daughter.
"He taught me to ride, to put up hay, to tend the chickens and milk the cows," Verone remembers.
Verone stayed in Butte through high school, participating in drama and winning a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse, where her acting career took off. She appeared in numerous movies and television shows, including "Blue Hawaii" with Elvis Presley and the '60s TV hits "My Favorite Martian" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
She stayed close to her parents — and her aunt and uncle.
In 2007, within a single day, she lost both her mother and her uncle Jim Edwards. Helen Edwards was then all the family Verone had left — and vice versa. Verone visited the ranch when she could, and the two talked by phone constantly.
A few years later, Edwards broke her arm, and Verone knew she needed some help caring for her aunt. She hired Nancy Schulz, wife of then-Madison County Commissioner David Schulz, as a caretaker.
Soon afterward, Verone says, she noticed a different tone in phone calls with her aunt, and after a time Helen Edwards changed her will to leave the ranch and most of the estate to Nancy Schulz and Paul Degel, a handyman and family friend who stayed on the ranch. The new will left Verone $25,000.
The following year, Edwards died, and the fight over the will led to Madison County District Court.
After the jury found that the 2012 will had been the result of fraud or duress, Verone and her attorneys, Ward "Mick" Taleff of Great Falls and Timothy Strauch of Missoula, found themselves stymied. They had won — but Tucker's refusal to admit the earlier will to probate presaged an ugly, protracted fight in his courtroom.
So they took an almost unprecedented step. Even though they had won, they appealed to the Supreme Court.
Taleff said he's been practicing law almost 41 years, and "this is the first time I've ever won a jury trial and then been the one to appeal."
After reading the Supreme Court decision, Taleff said, "We're very pleased. The only thing crazy is that we had to go to the Supreme Court to get this result."
Now, he said, "there shouldn't be any real question" the rest of the way for his client. "Once the will is admitted to probate," he said, "all that's left is to administer and close the estate."
In the meantime, Tucker has retired. Judge Luke Berger has replaced him in Montana's Fifth Judicial District.
Of the high court's decision on fees and costs, he said, "The district judge will have to decide on the amount, but there isn't any leeway in the decision. She will be awarded fees and costs."
Stephanie Kruer of Sheridan, attorney for Schulz, said in a statement Friday, "We are disappointed in the outcome of the appeal, as well as the trial, since the district court did not appoint a personal representative for Helen Edwards to represent her estate. So there was no one at trial to represent Helen or her will.
"Nancy Schulz's only goal at trial and on appeal was to stand up for what Helen wanted."
Kruer added, "We are reviewing the Supreme Court opinion to determine whether a rehearing can be requested under the rules of appellate procedure."
Taleff said his understanding is Kruer and Lyman Bennett, attorney for Degel, have 15 days to request a rehearing, but "the justices would have to have either missed a dispositive fact, or applied a wrong principle, or there would have to be new case law ... I believe none of those are going to remotely apply here."
Verone said she's decided it's time to come home to Montana. She owns her childhood home in Uptown Butte, in the 900 block of West Broadway. But she said she'd prefer to live on the ranch, and turn it into a horse-rescue facility in memory of her uncle.
"I would like to do something with the land that will be an expression of thanks for all the good he did in his life," she said, but added, "I don't know if I'll be able to. It depends on what's left" after the issue of attorney's fees is dealt with.
Regardless, she says, "I feel very good that I ... stuck it out. I can see Uncle Jim smiling."