DENNIS J. KELLY, JR.
GEORGE W. DUVALL, JR., et al
Argued November 7, 2014
As Corrected January 28, 2015.
Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. Case No.: 02-C-12-170592.
For Petitioner: Allan J. Gibber, Thomas M. Wood, IV, Michaela C. Muffoletto, Nichole M. Galvin of Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber, P.A., of Baltimore, MD, on brief.
For Respondents: Kimberly C. Aviles, E. Anne Hamel, Corbin, Schaffer Aviles, Chartered of Severna Park, MD of brief.
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ. Battaglia and Watts, JJ., dissent.
[441 Md. 277] Adkins, J.
The common law is no stranger to familial disputes born of contested inheritance. In this case, we are asked to interpret a mother's will and determine its relationship to Maryland's statutory testamentary law. Specifically, we must ascertain whether the testator intended to create a condition precedent to her son's inheritance, and if not, whether she intended to rebut the State's statutory anti-lapse presumption.
FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
This case arises from two disputed provisions in the Last Will and Testament of Elizabeth Duvall (the " Will" ), which Ms. Duvall executed on May 17, 2001. In part, the Will provides:
[441 Md. 278] ITEM III.
If any of the legatee or beneficiary named or described under any provision of my Will does not survive me by a period of thirty (30) days, then all provisions of my Will shall take effect as if such legatee or beneficiary had, in fact, predeceased me.
A. Specific Bequests:
(1) I hereby give, devise and bequeath that lot of ground and premises owned by me and located on and more commonly described as 161 Mabel Lane, Severna Park, Anne Arundel County, Maryland 21146, and all household furnishing and contents therein, unto my son, DENNIS J. KELLY, absolutely.
B. Rest and Residue:
All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate and property, real, leasehold, personal or mixed, of all kinds, nature and description, and wheresoever situate, I do hereby give, devise and bequeath unto my children, GEORGE W. DUVALL, JR., ALFRED N. KELLY, DENNIS J. KELLY and DAVID M. KELLY, to share and share alike, in equal shares.
Ms. Duvall's death on April 16, 2011, and the death of her son, Dennis J. Kelly, Sr., only weeks earlier set in motion this conflict over the proper disposition of her estate. On November 15, 2011, Respondents Alfred Kelly, David Kelly, and George Duvall filed a Petition for Construction of Ms. Duvall's Will in the Orphans' Court for Anne Arundel County, urging the court to " find that the Will leaves the assets of the estate to [Ms. Duvall's] living children only." Petitioner Dennis J. Kelly, Jr.--Kelly, Sr.'s heir--responded, contending that the house and its contents should pass to the estate of Kelly, Sr., and that his heirs are entitled to one-quarter of Ms. Duvall's residuary estate.
The Orphans' Court ruled in favor of the surviving sons, concluding that " the Estate should be distributed to the three surviving children named in item IV" of Ms. Duvall's Will. [441 Md. 279] Kelly, Jr. appealed to the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, which affirmed the judgment of the Orphans' Court. It reasoned:
The inclusion of Item III establishes intent on the part of the testator, Duvall, to require survivorship as a condition precedent to inheritance and that if any of the beneficiaries under her will predeceased her, their portion of the estate is distributed as if they were absent from the will.
On appeal, a divided panel of the Court of Special Appeals affirmed in an unreported opinion, concluding both that Item III imposed survivorship as a condition precedent to inheritance and that it manifested an intent to negate Maryland's anti-lapse statute. Judge James A. Kenney, III dissented, disagreeing with both conclusions and suggesting that the disputed provisions do " nothing more than simply reflect the testator's intent to avoid multiple estates in accordance with the applicable statutes and [do] not impose a period of survivorship on any specific legacy provided for in the Will." Kelly v. Duvall, No. 1688, Sept. Term, 2012, Slip Op. at 16 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Oct. 28, 2013) (Kenney, J., dissenting).
We granted Kelly, Jr.'s Petition for Writ of Certiorari to answer the following questions:
1. Whether the lower court erred in construing Item III in a manner inconsistent with Md. Code (1974, 2011 Repl. Vol.), § 4-401 of the Estates and Trusts Article (" ET" ) and finding that it imposed survivorship as a condition precedent to inheritance under the Will?
2. Whether the lower court erred in construing Item III and Item IV as demonstrating the Testatrix's contrary intent sufficient to overcome the presumption that Maryland's anti-lapse statute, ET § 4-403 applies?
Agreeing with Judge Kenney, we answer yes to both questions, and shall reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.
[441 Md. 280] STANDARD OF REVIEW
" [T]he findings of fact of an Orphans' Court are entitled to a presumption of correctness." N.Y. State Library Sch. Ass'n v. Atwater, 227 Md. 155, 157, 175 A.2d 592, 593 (1961) (citation omitted). But " [t]he lower court's interpretations of law enjoy no presumption of correctness on review: the appellate court must apply the law as it understands it to be." Rohrbaugh v. Estate of Stern, 305 Md. 443, 446 n.2, 505 A.2d 113, 115 n.2 (1986) (citations omitted). " Thus, an appellate court, including this Court, must ascertain whether the conclusions of law made by a trial court in the first instance are 'legally correct . . . .'" P ...