Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Shealer v. Straka

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 26, 2018

AMY SHEALER
v.
GEORGE STRAKA

          Argued: January 4, 2018

          Orphans' Court for Worcester County Estate No. 16463

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          GETTY, J.

         The Bench, the Bar, and the general public should no longer tolerate the condition which 170 years of patchwork amendments have created out of the relatively simple Act of 1798. The Commission's basic job, therefore, has been to attempt to create reasonable order in the law of decedents' estates. . . . Most of the changes of substance are motivated by one salient thought - the handling of estates should be accomplished with efficiency, expedition, and as little red tape and expense as possible.

Honorable William L. Henderson, [1] "Letter of Transmittal" of the Second Report of Governor's Commission to Review and Revise the Testamentary Law of Maryland, December 5, 1968

         In this appeal, we must determine the proper procedure before an orphans' court in two scenarios: (1) when an interested party files a petition to caveat a will; and (2) when an interested party requests that the orphans' court transmit an issue to the circuit court for a trial by jury. In deciding the appropriate procedures, this Court will analyze whether the Maryland General Assembly intended to eliminate the need for an automatic stay after a party files a petition to caveat when it enacted Md. Code (1974, 2011 Repl. Vol.), Estates & Trusts ("ET") § 5-207. Specific to this appeal, we must determine if the Orphans' Court for Worcester County erred by proceeding with a judicial probate hearing after an interested party filed a petition to caveat and whether it erred by denying a request to transfer issues to a court of law. Moreover, this Court must decide whether any error by the Orphans' Court for Worcester County was harmless.

         For the following reasons, we conclude that when it enacted ET § 5-207(b), the General Assembly intended to mandate a judicial probate hearing as the single, simple procedure after a party files a petition to caveat. As such, an automatic stay is not required when a petition to caveat a will is filed. We also hold that when an interested party in a caveat case makes a request to transfer undecided factual issues to a circuit court, the orphans' court is required to transmit the issues to a court of law pursuant to ET § 2-105(b). In this case, the Orphans' Court for Worcester County did not err in refusing to stay the judicial probate proceeding simply because a petition to caveat was filed; however, the orphans' court did err when it refused a party's request to transmit unresolved factual issues to a court of law. We conclude that this error was not harmless. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and remand the matter back to the Orphans' Court for Worcester County.

         BACKGROUND

         On March 28, 2016, Andrea Ayers Straka ("the Decedent") died at the age of thirty-seven from pneumonia caused by Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Two days later, on March 30, 2016, the Decedent's father, George M. Straka ("Mr. Straka"), filed a petition for administrative probate of a regular estate with the Worcester County Register of Wills. In his petition, Mr. Straka affirmed that he made a diligent effort to search for a will prepared by the Decedent. Mr. Straka's petition also included a statement that no will existed to the best of his knowledge. In an attachment to the petition, Mr. Straka indicated that the Decedent's estate included approximately $300, 000 in real property. After considering the petition, the Register of Wills of Worcester County issued an administrative probate order, appointing Mr. Straka as personal representative of the Decedent's estate.

         The same afternoon that Mr. Straka filed a petition for administrative probate, a party[2] filed the Last Will and Testament of the Decedent ("the Decedent's Will") with the Worcester County Register of Wills. The Decedent's Will indicated that the document was prepared on July 15, 2015 in Berlin, Maryland. In addition, the Decedent's Will stated that the Decedent had never been married and had no biological children. In the Will, the Decedent appointed William Jay Mumma, Jr. ("Mr. Mumma"), the Decedent's best friend, and Amy Shealer ("Ms. Shealer") as personal representatives and executors of the Decedent's Will.[3] The Decedent's Will bequeathed her real property, in addition to all of the personal property contained in the house, to Mr. Mumma, Ms. Shealer, and her godchildren: Ava and Abigail Simone.

         The Decedent's Will also included a section of specific bequests, which directed that an investment account be sold, converted to cash value, and be distributed in the following manner: (1) $70, 000 to Mr. Straka and $30, 000 to Mr. Straka's two daughters, the Decedent's half-sisters; (2) $100, 000 to her attorney; (3) $10, 000 to her law firm to be donated to any charity of their choosing; (4) $10, 000 to her friend, Robert Staph; (5) $10, 000 to the charity The Delmarva Cat Connection to be donated in the Decedent's name; (6) $25, 000 to her friends and financial advisors, Lora and Greg Gann; and (7) a division of the remaining balance: fifty percent to Mr. Mumma; thirty percent to Ms. Shealer; and, twenty percent to be used for fees and taxes. Any remainder of the Decedent's estate is distributed equally between Mr. Mumma and Ms. Shealer. The Decedent's Will also bears the signature of two witnesses, Mark Anthony Burdette and Alan W. Forsythe.

         On April 5, 2016, Ms. Shealer filed a petition for administrative probate of a regular estate. Ms. Shealer's petition included an affirmation, stating that the Decedent's Will was found among her important papers and delivered to the Register of Wills for Worcester County. Ms. Shealer indicated that the only other proceedings regarding the Decedent's estate was the regular estate petition for administration filed by Mr. Straka. In her petition, Ms. Shealer requested that she be appointed personal representative of the Decedent's estate. In addition, Ms. Shealer included two specific requests under the petition's section for additional relief: (1) that the Decedent's Will be admitted to judicial probate; and (2) that the orphans' court conclude that the Decedent's Will was duly executed, the Decedent was legally competent to make the Will, and the Decedent's Will was properly attested to and executed by two witnesses. Ms. Shealer listed Mr. Straka, the Decedent's two half-sisters, and Mr. Mumma as interested persons.

         In response to Ms. Shealer's petition, the Register of Wills for Worcester County appointed Ms. Shealer as personal representative of the Decedent's estate. Moreover, the Orphans' Court for Worcester County issued a notice of judicial probate, which indicated that Ms. Shealer had filed a petition for judicial probate of the Decedent's Will. The orphans' court also issued a notice of hearing, which notified the interested parties that the judicial probate hearing would be held on April 19, 2016. The court sent the two notices to Mr. Straka as an interested person. In addition, the Register of Wills for Worcester County also sent Mr. Straka a letter informing him that the Letters of Administration appointing Mr. Straka as personal representative of the Decedent's estate were revoked after the Decedent's Will was filed. The letter further informed Mr. Straka that he "will be the Special Administrator of the estate[, ] which means you cannot act for the estate without the prior approval of the [o]rphans' [c]ourt." The letter reminded Mr. Straka that the judicial probate hearing would be held on April 19, 2016, at which time he would be able to address the orphans' court.

         After receiving the notice and letter, Mr. Straka obtained counsel in preparation for the judicial probate hearing. Counsel for Mr. Straka filed his entry of appearance on April 15, 2016, four days before the scheduled hearing. Along with his entry of appearance, Mr. Straka's attorney filed a motion for postponement, asserting that the judicial probate hearing was no longer necessary because Mr. Straka intended to file a petition to caveat as well as a petition to transmit issues to the Circuit Court for Worcester County. Moreover, the motion alleged that counsel for Mr. Straka had a scheduling conflict with the April 19, 2016 hearing date.

         Mr. Straka's attorney also filed a petition to caveat, which indicated that Mr. Straka believed the Decedent's Will to be invalid. Specifically, Mr. Straka alleged that the Decedent's Will should not be admitted to probate for several reasons: the Decedent lacked capacity to make the Will; the Decedent's Will was procured after undue influence; the Decedent's Will was not signed by the Decedent or any other person in her presence; the Decedent's Will was not properly executed or attested to in accordance with Maryland law; the Decedent's Will was not known by the Decedent before or at the time of execution; and the Decedent's Will was procured by fraud. The petition to caveat requested multiple prayers of relief, including a determination that the Decedent's Will is invalid with no legal effect and that the Decedent died intestate. Mr. Straka also requested that he, or a neutral third party, be appointed as personal representative of the Decedent's estate. However, the petition to caveat failed to provide a complete list of interested persons.

         The April 19, 2016 judicial probate hearing was held before two orphans' court judges. Mr. Straka, Ms. Shealer, and Mr. Mumma all appeared at the hearing with counsel. The orphans' court first permitted the parties to make an opening statement. Counsel for Mr. Straka informed the court that he had previously filed a petition to caveat and had filed that day an amended petition to caveat with a complete list of interested parties. Mr. Straka's attorney argued the petition to caveat stayed the action until the issues in the petition are determined. In addition, Mr. Straka's counsel informed the court that they were filing "petitions for issues" and that they were asking "that issues be framed to go to the circuit court for a jury trial." After hearing opening statements, the orphans' court denied the motion for postponement and indicated that an order would be issued to that effect. The orphans' court did not rule on Mr. Straka's petition to caveat, amended petition to caveat, or the request to transmit issues to a court of law, but instead proceeded with the judicial probate hearing and allowed Ms. Shealer's counsel to call witnesses to testify. Before the witnesses began their testimony, counsel for Mr. Straka objected to any testimony, claiming that the only immediate duty of the orphans' court was to appoint a special administrator of the estate because of the petition to caveat. The orphans' court overruled the objection.

         Ms. Shealer first called Alan W. Forsythe ("Mr. Forsythe"), who testified that he witnessed the Decedent sign the Decedent's Will and signed the Decedent's Will himself at the Decedent's home on July 15, 2015. Mr. Forsythe further testified that he witnessed Mark Anthony Burdette ("Mr. Burdette") sign the Decedent's Will on the same date. On cross-examination, counsel for Mr. Straka asked Mr. Forsythe about his alleged previous convictions for theft, disorderly conduct, and passing a bad check. Mr. Forsythe testified that he did not recall the Decedent reviewing her Will or explaining what the document was beyond stating it was her Will at the time he signed it. Ms. Shealer then called her second witness, Mr. Burdette. During his testimony, Mr. Burdette stated that he recognized the Decedent's Will, that he witnessed the Decedent sign the Will, that he witnessed Mr. Forsythe sign the Decedent's Will, and that he signed the Decedent's Will at the same time. Mr. Burdette further testified that he did not believe that the Decedent was acting peculiar or slurring her words on the day that each of them signed the Decedent's Will. On cross-examination, Mr. Burdette indicated that the Decedent did not explain that the document he was signing was a Will. Mr. Burdette also testified that he did not read the document and did not know who prepared the Decedent's Will.

         After the testimony of the witnesses concluded, Mr. Straka's attorney orally moved to "frame issue[s] to send to the [c]ircuit [c]ourt[.]" Counsel for Mr. Straka also indicated that the relevant statute states "that anytime that a party asks for issues to be framed and transmitted to the [c]ircuit [c]ourt this [c]ourt must do so as long as it's before you have issued a ruling." In sum, counsel requested that the orphans' court "transmit a factual issue, which would be consolidated with the caveat issues[.]" Counsel for Ms. Shealer indicated to the orphans' court that his client would be entitled to file a response to the request to transmit issues to a court of law. In addition, Ms. Shealer's attorney stated that the purpose of the hearing, i.e. to obtain enough evidence to admit the Decedent's Will and appoint a personal representative, had already been served through the testimony of the two witnesses. After reconvening from a recess to deliberate, [4] the orphans' court denied Mr. Straka's motion to transmit the issues. The orphans' court also denied Mr. Straka's request for the court to consider the petition to caveat because the petition was incomplete. Ultimately, the orphans' court admitted the Decedent's Will to probate and named Ms. Shealer as personal representative.

         That same day, the orphans' court issued an order, confirming the oral rulings made at the hearing. Specifically, the order accepted the Decedent's Will into probate, removed Mr. Straka from his role as special administrator, and named Ms. Shealer personal representative of the estate. In addition, the order recognized the petition to caveat filed by Mr. Straka on April 15, 2016, noting that the petition was incomplete. The order did not address Mr. Straka's motion to transmit issues to the circuit court or his amended petition to caveat filed on April 19, 2016.

         On April 26, 2016, Mr. Straka filed a motion to reconsider or to alter and amend the orphans' court judgment, setting forth two main arguments. Mr. Straka first contended that the orphans' court erred when it ignored Maryland case law, which required a probate matter to be stayed when a party files a petition to caveat. In support of his initial argument, Mr. Straka asserted that he filed an initial petition to caveat as well as an amended petition to caveat on the day of the hearing, either of which would require an automatic stay. As to his second argument, Mr. Straka contended that the orphans' court erred when it proceeded to rule on the judicial probate after Mr. Straka made an oral request at the hearing to transmit issues to the circuit court. Mr. Straka argued that the orphans' court was required to frame and transmit the issues to the circuit court pursuant to the Maryland rules and statutes. On May 17, 2016, Ms. Shealer filed an opposition to the motion to reconsider, asserting that the petition to caveat was a nullity given its incompleteness. Ms. Shealer further argued that the orphans' court properly refused to transfer the issues to the circuit court after Mr. Straka's oral petition to transmit certain issues to a court of law.

         By memorandum and accompanying order dated June 21, 2016, the orphans' court denied Mr. Straka's motion to reconsider or to alter and amend judgment. The orphans' court specifically concluded that it did not err in refusing to consider the initial petition to caveat because the petition did not comply with the Maryland Rules. Additionally, the orphans' court determined that it properly denied the motion to transmit issues because the only petition to caveat filed at the time was defective.

         Mr. Straka filed a timely Notice of Appeal of the orphans' court's April 19, 2016 order, which admitted the Decedent's Will to probate, removed Mr. Straka as special administrator, and named Ms. Shealer as personal representative. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the judgment of the orphans' court in an unreported opinion issued on May 19, 2017. Specifically, the Court of Special Appeals held that a petition to caveat stays all proceedings until the caveat is addressed. Matter of Estate of Straka, No. 1023, 2017 WL 2210122, at *5 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. May 19, 2017). Ms. Shealer petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari, which this Court granted on September 12, 2017. Shealer v. Straka, 456 Md. 57 (2017). Ms. Shealer presented several questions for our review, which we have rephrased:

I. How should an orphans' court proceed when an interested party files a petition to caveat?
II. What is the proper procedure when an interested party requests an orphans' court to transmit factual issues to a court of law?
III. Did the Orphans' Court for Worcester County commit error by refusing to consider Mr. Straka's petition to caveat and denying his request to transmit issues?
IV. Was any error by the Orphans' Court for Worcester County harmless? [5]

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         The first, second, and third questions in this appeal involve the interpretation and application of a Maryland statute, which is a question of law subject to de novo review. Phillips v. State, 451 Md. 180, 189 (2017). When this Court interprets a statute, this "Court defers to 'the policy decisions enacted into law by the General Assembly.'" Reger v. Washington Cty. Bd. of Educ., 455 Md. 68, 95 (2017) (quoting Phillips, 451 Md. at 196). Therefore, we review the first question presented de novo without deference to the orphans' court.

         As to the fourth question regarding harmless error, this Court should conduct an "independent review of the record[.]" Dorsey v. State, 276 Md. 638, 659 (1976). After a "comprehensive review of the record[, ]" the ultimate decision for a reviewing court is whether a complainant has shown that prejudice was probable rather than simply showing that prejudice was possible. Barksdale v. Wilkowsky, 419 Md. 649, 670 (2011). As such, this Court will conduct an independent, comprehensive review of the record from the orphans' court to determine whether Mr. Straka demonstrated that prejudice was probable.

         DISCUSSION

         "A probate proceeding provides a vehicle for identifying and collecting the decedent's property, paying the debts of the decedent and the estate in an orderly way, and distributing the remainder of the estate to those entitled to share in the estate either under the decedent's will or according to intestate distribution." Green v. Nelson, 227 Md.App. 698, 708, cert. denied, 448 Md. 725 (2016). Probating a will means proving that certain documents constitute a decedent's last will and testament. Schlossberg v. Schlossberg, 275 Md. 600, 625 (1975). In Maryland, the "law confides in the [o]rphans' [c]ourt power to determine whether or not a will should be admitted to probate." Ades v. Norins, 204 Md. 267, 272 (1954). In other words, once a party has offered a will for probate, the orphans' court has the authority to find that the will is valid and enforceable, thereby admitting the will to probate. Id. The Maryland Estates and Trusts Article provides two ways for an interested person[6] to probate a will: (1) administrative probate by the register of wills; and (2) judicial probate by the orphans' court. See ET § 5-101. As the names suggest, the main difference between the two methods of probate is that the first consists of an administrative proceeding without a full hearing and the second is a full judicial proceeding before the orphans' court. When an interested party files a petition for judicial probate, the orphans' court holds a hearing, during which the court can call witnesses, resolve issues of fact, and appoint a personal representative of the estate. See ET § 5-401.

         Even after a petition for administrative or judicial probate, Maryland law provides an interested party with mechanisms to contest the will if that party believes that the will was not properly executed or that the will was procured by undue influence, fraud, or duress. See Green, 227 Md.App. at 709. Specifically, an interested party can file a petition to caveat contesting the validity of the will submitted to probate. Id. See also Md. Rule 6-431. Pursuant to ET § 5-207(a), a petition to caveat may be filed within six months of the initial appointment of a personal representative.[7] Particularly significant to the instant case, ET § 5-207(b) explains that if a "petition to caveat is filed before the filing of a petition for probate, or after administrative probate, it has the effect of a request for judicial probate. If filed after judicial probate, the matter shall be reopened and a new proceeding held as if only administrative probate had previously been determined." (Emphasis added.)

         Along with the option to file a petition to caveat, interested parties can also request that the orphans' court transmit certain factual issues to a court of law. Ades, 204 Md. at 272 ("To aid in the execution of that duty, the Legislature has empowered the court to direct any issue of fact to be tried by plenary proceedings and with the help of a jury."). Specifically, ET § 2-105 states, "At the request of an interested person made within the time determined by the court, the issue of fact may be determined by a court of law. When the request is made before the court has determined the issue of fact, the court shall transmit the issue to a court of law." See also Md. Rule 6-434. This Court has previously recognized that "[a]lthough the transmission of issues to a law court for trial is most frequently used in caveat cases, it is a procedure available in all cases in controversy within the jurisdiction of the orphans' court[.]" Myers v. Hart, 248 Md. 443, 447 (1968).

         The parties in the case sub judice primarily disagree as to the proper procedure when an interested party attempts to employ these two mechanisms for contesting the validity of a will. Specifically, this Court will analyze: (1) whether the General Assembly, when it enacted ET § 5-207, created a new procedure for orphans' courts after an interested party files a petition to caveat a will; (2) whether the General Assembly intended to change the procedure after an interested party requests that the orphans' court transmit caveat issues to a court of law; (3) whether these procedures implicate the case sub judice; and (4) whether any error on the part of the Orphans' Court for Worcester County was harmless. As such, we will address these issues in turn.

         A. Proper Procedure in Orphans' Court after a Party files a Petition to Caveat

         Ms. Shealer primarily contends that the plain and ordinary language of ET § 5-207(b) is unambiguous in that a petition to caveat constitutes a request for judicial probate. Specifically, Ms. Shealer argues that the General Assembly would have included language requiring a stay in ET § 5-207 if the legislature intended for orphans' courts to automatically stay the proceedings after an interested person filed a petition to caveat. Ms. Shealer maintains that the Court of Special Appeals erred in analyzing the legislative history of ET § 5-207(b) and ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.