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Groat v. Sundberg

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

August 29, 2013

IRVING GROAT
v.
KRISTIN E. SUNDBERG, ET AL.

Woodward, Matricciani, Salmon, James P. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

Woodward, J.

On June 18, 2010, Irv Groat, appellant, [1] filed a request with the Register of Wills of Anne Arundel County that a one-page document dated January 21, 2010 (the "Document") be admitted to probate as a codicil to the will of Frank Halgas ("Mr. Halgas"), [2] who had died on March 21, 2010 or, in the alternative, that a hearing be held to determine the Document's validity. Appellees, Kristin E. Sundberg and Michael Prendergast, challenged the admission of the Document to probate. On August 26, 2010, a hearing was held before the Orphans' Court for Anne Arundel County to determine the validity of the Document as a codicil. On September 14, 2010, the orphans' court determined that the Document did not satisfy the witnessing requirements for a testamentary document under Maryland Code (1974, 2011 Repl. Vol.), § 4-102 of the Estates and Trusts Article ("E.T.") and refused to admit the Document to probate as a codicil to the will of Mr. Halgas.

Appellant presents three questions for our review, which we have slightly rephrased:

1. Did the orphans' court err when it placed the burden of proving due execution on appellant?
2. Did the orphans' court err when it implicitly considered that an interested witness's failure to recall whether she was in the same room as the testator at the time she signed the codicil was evidence against due execution?
3. Is the requirement of E.T. § 4-102 that a witness sign "in the presence of the testator" satisfied when a witness signs a codicil at the direction of the testator and while in the same house as the testator?

For the reasons set forth herein, we shall answer each question in the negative and accordingly affirm the judgment of the orphans' court.

BACKGROUND

On August 12, 2006, Mr. Halgas executed a Last Will and Testament (the "Will"). He appointed his niece, Melissa Halgas ("Ms. Halgas"), "Executrix" of the Will. Article IV of the Will stated:

I have provided, through MicroLamda, LLC, for the payment to my estate of $500, 000 in life insurance benefits upon my death for my interest in MicroLamda, LLC. Upon receipt of such insurance proceeds by my Executor I direct that my Executor convey all of my right, title, and interest in the ownership of MicroLamda, LLC as follows:
a. One half of my interest to Kristin E. Sundberg, and
b. One half of my interest to Michael Prendergast.
In the event that either predeceases me then I give, devise and bequeath their one half interest to the survivor.

In Article V of the Will, Ms. Halgas was to receive "all of [Mr. Halgas's] estate and all the rest, residue and remainder of [his] estate, both real and personal property of every description whatsoever, including any property over which [he has] a power of appointment . . . ."

On March 21, 2010, Mr. Halgas died. Appellant thereafter asked the attorney for the Estate of Frank Halgas (the "Estate") to present the Document to the Register of Wills for probate as a codicil to the Will. The Document is reproduced, in its entirety, as follows:

January 21, 2010
Upon my dearth I well transfer all my stock & Irv Groat fat the sum of $10, 000.00.
A copy of the Check should be furnished to Micro Lambda to Initiate transfer.
Frank Halgas
Irv Groat

The attorney for the Estate refused to present the Document to the Register of Wills, because he believed that it failed to satisfy the statutory requirements of a testamentary document.

On June 18, 2010, appellant filed a request with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County that the Document be admitted to probate as a codicil to the will of Mr. Halgas or, in the alternative, that a hearing be held to determine the Document's validity. On June 22, 2010, the Will was admitted to probate, and Ms. Halgas was appointed personal representative of the Estate.

On August 26, 2010, a hearing was held before the orphans' court to determine the validity of the Document as a codicil to the Will. At the hearing, appellant testified that, between January 7 and 14, 2010, Mr. Halgas contacted him about executing a codicil:

Mr. Halgas told me that it was a Codicil and he emailed me a soft copy of [the Document] and directed me over the phone to print out three copies of it and bring it with me to have lunch with him at his home, bring the three copies. I did so. In his presence he asked me to sign it, sign all three copies, and I did, and he signed all three copies in front of me and he asked me to leave them on the desk in his den where he was spending most of his time.
We ate in the den. He had an easy chair where he spent most of his time because that was the most comfortable place for him at the time. So all three copies were signed by him, by me that day and left on his desk and he told me he would have [Ms. Halgas] sign them and call me up when that was accomplished.

Ms. Halgas testified that on January 15, 2010, she had a conversation with Mr. Halgas about "his intention to have -- to transfer the stock to [appellant], instead of following the Will as it was written." Ms. Halgas continued:

And so [Mr. Halgas] said that the next time I came, which would be two weeks later, he would have a document ready for me to sign. And so when I came back two weeks later, it was around February 6th, 5th [or] 6th. [The Document] was there, ...

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