Argued: January 4, 2018
Orphans' Court for Worcester County Estate No. 16463
Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten,
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,  "Letter of
Transmittal" of the Second Report of Governor's
Commission to Review and Revise the Testamentary Law of
Maryland, December 5, 1968
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.
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.
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.
same afternoon that Mr. Straka filed a petition for
administrative probate, a party 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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,  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
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.
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.
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.
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
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? 
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
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.
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 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.
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. 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.)
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).
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.
Proper Procedure in Orphans' Court after a Party
files a Petition to Caveat
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