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Castruccio v. Estate of Castruccio

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

November 14, 2018

SADIE M. CASTRUCCIO
v.
ESTATE OF PETER A. CASTRUCCIO, et al.

          Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. 02-C-14-184865 DJ.

          Wright, Arthur, Salmon, James P. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ. [*]

          OPINION

          ARTHUR, J.

         After mounting an unsuccessful challenge to the validity of her late husband's will, a widow contended that, as a matter of law, she was nonetheless entitled to receive virtually all of his estate under that same will. The Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County disagreed and declared that the estate should pass to an alternate residuary beneficiary. The widow appealed, principally arguing that the circuit court erroneously relied on evidence other than the literal language of the will itself. We affirm.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Dr. Peter Castruccio died on February 19, 2013. He was survived by his wife of 62 years, appellant Sadie Castruccio. John Greiber, Jr., the Castruccios' lawyer for more than 20 years, was appointed personal representative under the terms of Dr. Castruccio's will. At Mr. Greiber's request, the will was admitted to administrative probate on February 27, 2013.

         Dr. Castruccio's will was a six-page document with one codicil. The will began with two, brief introductory paragraphs, which were followed by 11 "items," most of which are not in dispute.

         Item 7, labeled "Cash Bequests," consisted of three general legacies, to be distributed "prior to any bequest to [Dr. Castruccio's] beloved wife." The bequests consisted of $800, 000.00 for appellee Darlene Barclay, Dr. Castruccio's long-time employee; $100, 000.00 for Adriana Lanata, Dr. Castruccio's niece, who lives in Italy; and $100, 000.00 for Ernest Stinchcomb, Jr., the Castruccios' handyman. In the codicil, Dr. Castruccio increased the amount of the bequest to Mr. Stinchcomb to $200, 000.00.

         Item 8 was unlabeled and read as follows:

To my loving wife, Sadie, excluding the individual bequest [sic] made in Item 7, I leave the rest and remainder of my Estate to her should she one, survive me and two provided she has made and executed a Will prior to my death.

         Item 10, labeled "Residuary Clause," stated:

Should, at the time of my death, my beloved wife not have a valid Will filed with the Register of Wills in Anne Arundel County dated prior thereto these [sic], I hereby give, devise and bequeath all the rest and residue of my Estate and property, whether imposition, expectancy will remainder [sic], including all property over which I may have Power of Appointment to the following individuals share and share alike per stirpes and not per capita to DARLENE BARCLAY, [at Ms. Barclay's street address].

         On March 12, 2013, an attorney for Dr. Castruccio's personal representative told Mrs. Castruccio that, according to the will, any bequest to her was contingent upon her having a "valid Will filed with the Register of Wills in Anne Arundel County dated prior thereto these [sic]." In the same communication, the attorney requested that Mrs. Castruccio supply a copy of any valid will that she had filed with the Register of Wills of Anne Arundel County before Dr. Castruccio executed his will. Mrs. Castruccio had not filed (or deposited) any will with the Register of Wills of Anne Arundel County.

         Mrs. Castruccio responded by filing a caveat petition in the Orphans' Court of Anne Arundel County, wherein she challenged the validity of the will. As a defendant, Mrs. Castruccio named her late husband's Estate.[1] Ms. Barclay intervened as a co-defendant.

         The caveat proceeding moved to the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County because Mrs. Castruccio petitioned to transmit issues to that court for trial. See Md. Code (1974, 2011 Repl. Vol.), § 2-105(b) of the Estates and Trusts Article.

         After discovery, both sides moved for summary judgment in the caveat proceeding. On September 23, 2014, the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the Estate and Ms. Barclay and denied Mrs. Castruccio's cross-motion for summary judgment. Mrs. Castruccio appealed. We affirmed (see Castruccio v. Estate of Castruccio, 230 Md.App. 118 (2016)), as did the Court of Appeals. See Castruccio v. Estate of Castruccio, 456 Md. 1 (2017).

         Meanwhile, on January 16, 2014, while the caveat petition was pending, Mrs. Castruccio filed this case in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. In brief, in this case, Mrs. Castruccio requested a declaration that she was the rightful beneficiary of her husband's residuary estate under the will.

         At the parties' request, the circuit court stayed this case pending the resolution of the caveat case, but it lifted the stay at Mrs. Castruccio's request once it had rendered its ruling in the caveat case.

         After the court lifted the stay, Ms. Barclay filed a counterclaim, in which she requested a declaration that under the will she, and not Mrs. Castruccio, was entitled to receive the residuary estate. In addition, Ms. Barclay invoked Item 6 of the 2010 will, an "in terrorem" or "no contest" clause, which states: "In the event that any party, whether they are a beneficiary or not, shall file any proceeding in an attempt to void any and all provisions of this instrument, in that event, such party shall receive no benefits whatsoever from my Estate, in the event that such proceedings are unsuccessful." Ms. Barclay requested a declaration that, because Mrs. Castruccio had challenged the 2010 will in the caveat proceedings, she could take nothing under that will.

         The parties presented conflicting interpretations of Dr. Castruccio's will. The conflict centered on whether Item 10 should or should not be read in conjunction with Item 8.

         According to the Estate and Ms. Barclay, Items 8 and 10 should be read together to impose three conditions precedent to Mrs. Castruccio's right to recover under the will as a residuary beneficiary: (1) she had to survive her husband (as stated in Item 8), (2) she had to have made a will (as also stated in item 8), and (3) she had to file a valid will with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County before her husband's death (as stated in Item 10). Because it was undisputed that Mrs. Castruccio had not filed (or deposited) a will with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County before her husband's death, the Estate and Ms. Barclay argued that Mrs. Castruccio had not satisfied the third condition and, hence, could recover nothing. In that event, they said, Ms. Barclay would receive the balance of the estate under Item 10.[2]

         Mrs. Castruccio argued that Items 8 and 10 addressed different scenarios and that they should not be read together. In Mrs. Castruccio's view, Item 8 addressed what should happen if she survived her husband, while Item 10 addressed what should happen if she did not. According to Mrs. Castruccio, under Item 8, she would receive her husband's entire estate (minus the $1.1 million in specific bequests in Item 7 and the codicil) if she survived him and had made and executed a will before his death. On the other hand, she said, if she did not survive her husband, Item 10 dictated that his estate (minus the specific bequests) would go to the beneficiaries whom she had named in her will, provided that her will was valid and that it had been filed with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County in a probate proceeding. In Mrs. Castruccio's interpretation, if she predeceased her husband and did not leave a will, his estate (minus the specific bequests) would go to Ms. Barclay.

         On October 15, 2015, the Estate moved for summary judgment on all of the claims alleged in Mrs. Castruccio's complaint. The Estate specifically sought an order declaring that, because Mrs. Castruccio did not file a valid will with the Register of Wills at any time before Dr. Castruccio's death, she did not meet the requirements of Item 8 and Item 10 of the will. The Estate also sought a declaration that under Item 6 Mrs. Castruccio was precluded from receiving any benefit because of her attempt to invalidate the will.

         On that same day, Ms. Barclay moved for summary judgment on her counterclaim for declaratory relief. On the following day, Mrs. Castruccio filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, claiming that she was the residuary beneficiary under the 2010 will and requesting a declaration to that effect.

         On November 10, 2015, the circuit court held a hearing on the summary judgment motions, but it waited to rule while Mrs. Castruccio's appeal in the caveat case was pending in this Court. After this Court affirmed the circuit court's decision in the caveat case in 2016, the court requested re-argument in this case.

         In connection with a hearing on November 7, 2016, all parties submitted supplemental exhibits and briefing. Much of the debate concerned the extent to which the court could consider information other than the language of the 2010 will itself. Most notably, that information included evidence of Dr. Castruccio's antipathy toward Mrs. Castruccio's nephews, his desire that the nephews receive none of his assets, and his unsuccessful attempts to involve his wife in joint estate-planning activities.

         On January 6, 2017, the circuit court ruled that the interpretation advanced by the Estate and Ms. Barclay was correct. The court issued a declaratory judgment in which it based its decision both on the language of the will itself and on the circumstances surrounding Dr. Castruccio's execution of the will.

         Specifically, in paragraph 4 of its declaratory judgment, the court wrote:

That this Court declares that when construed by their plain and ordinary meaning [sic] and upon reading together Items 8 and 10 of the Will, Plaintiff Sadie M. Castruccio may only take as a residuary beneficiary under the Will if she satisfied three requirements prior to Peter A. Castruccio's death on February 19, 2013: (a) that she survived Peter A. Castruccio; (b) that she made and executed a will; and (c) that Plaintiff Sadie M. Castruccio filed her valid will with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County[.]

         In addition, in paragraph 5 of its declaratory judgment, the court wrote:

That in light of undisputed competent evidence of the background to the execution of the Will by Peter A. Castruccio as well as the relevant events that transpired after its execution, this Court declares that Peter A. Castruccio expressed in Items 8 and 10 of the Will that Plaintiff Sadie M. Castruccio may only take as a residuary beneficiary under the will if she satisfied three requirements prior to his death on February 19, 2013: (a) that she survived Peter A. Castruccio; (b) that she made and executed a will; and (c) that Plaintiff Sadie M. Castruccio filed her valid will with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County[.]

         Because Mrs. Castruccio had not filed a will with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County before her husband's death, the circuit court concluded that she had no right to recover under the will. Instead, the court concluded that Ms. Barclay was the sole residuary beneficiary.

         In addition to addressing the interpretation of Items 8 and 10, the court considered the contention that, under the "in terrorem" or "no contest" clause in Item 6, Mrs. Castruccio had no right to recover under the will because she had unsuccessfully challenged its validity in the caveat case. The court rejected that contention, because it believed that Mrs. Castruccio had had probable cause to commence the caveat case.

         The court issued a memorandum and order in accordance with its decision. In that order, the court denied Mrs. Castruccio's motion for summary judgment; granted the Estate's motion for summary judgment; granted Ms. Barclay's motion for summary judgment on the interpretation of Items 8 and 10; but denied Ms. Barclay's motion for summary judgment as to the effect of Item 6.

         Mrs. Castruccio noted a timely appeal.

         Questions Presented

         Mrs. Castruccio presents two questions, which we quote:

1. Did the trial court err by basing its construction of the will in whole or in part on extrinsic evidence as to what [Dr. Castruccio] intended the words of his will to mean, instead of determining his intent solely from words he actually used in the four corners of the will?
2. Did the trial court err by denying [Mrs. Castruccio's] motion for summary judgment that pursuant to Item 8 of the Will, she is the beneficiary of [Dr. Castruccio's] residual estate?

         We answer "no" to both questions. Hence, we affirm.

         Standard of Review

         Both sides agree that this was a proper case for summary judgment. Both sides also agree that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. They disagree, however, about which of them was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. "The standard of review for a declaratory judgment entered as a result of the grant of a motion for summary judgment is 'whether that declaration was correct as a matter of law.'" Catalyst Health Solutions, Inc. v. Magill, 414 Md. 457, 471 (2010) (quoting Olde Severna Park Improvement Ass'n, Inc. v. Gunby, 402 Md. 317, 329 (2007)).

         Discussion

         I. The General Rules of Will Construction

         The general principles for construing a will are well established. "[T]he intention of the testator is the polar star, and must prevail, if consistent with the rules of law[.]" Walters v. Walters, 3 H. & J. 201, 205 (1811). "When construing a will, the 'paramount concern of the court is to ascertain and effectuate the testator's expressed intent.'" Pfeufer v. Cyphers, 397 Md. 643, 649 (2007) (quoting Emmert v. Hearn, 309 Md. 19, 23 (1987)); accord Friedman v. Hannan, 412 Md. 328, 339 (2010). "[T]he search is not for the testator's 'presumed [intention] but for his [or her] expressed intention.'" Pfeufer v. Cyphers, 397 Md. at 649 (quoting LeRoy v. Kirk, 262 Md. 276, 279 (1971)). "Generally, that intent is 'gathered from the four corners of the will, '" id. (quoting Reedy v. Barber, 253 Md. 141, 148 (1969)), "with the words of the will given their 'plain meaning and import.'" Id. (quoting Emmert v. Hearn, 309 Md. at 23); accord Friedman v. Hannan, 412 Md. at 339-40. "'Th[e] expressed intention of a testator must be gathered from the language of the entire will, ...


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