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In re Watkins

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

May 29, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF ROBERT H. WATKINS, JR.

          Orphans' Court for Prince George's County Estate No. 97, 794

          Berger, Leahy, Eyler, James R. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          EYLER, JAMES R., J.

         Robert F. Watkins, Jr. ("the Decedent") died on August 30, 2014 at the age of 82. He was survived by his third wife of less than two years, Emeline Wilson Watkins ("Emeline"), the appellant; his adult daughter from his second marriage and the personal representative of his estate, Shannon Watkins ("Shannon"), the appellee; and his adult daughter from his first marriage, Hannah Ink ("Hannah"). The Decedent's second wife of 52 years, Jasmine Watkins ("Jasmine") predeceased him in 2012.

         On September 18, 2014, Shannon filed a petition for administrative probate with the Register of Wills for Prince George's County. By order of September 24, 2014, the Decedent's Last Will and Testament dated January 28, 1999, together with a Codicil dated November 16, 2006 (collectively "the Will"), were admitted to probate and Shannon was appointed Personal Representative of the Estate. Shannon filed a Petition for Ancillary Administrative Probate in Broward County, Florida, where the Decedent owned real property ("the Florida Probate Action").

         On March 23, 2015, Emeline filed in the Orphans' Court for Prince George's County an "Objection and Petition to Revoke Probate and Letters Testamentary" on the ground that the Decedent was domiciled in Florida, not Maryland, when he died.[1] She asserted that the Maryland probate matter should be closed and that the Decedent's Maryland assets should be administered by a foreign personal representative within the Florida Probate Action.

         Shannon, in her individual capacity and as Personal Representative, opposed Emeline's petition to revoke probate. She maintained that the Decedent was domiciled in Maryland when he died and asserted that Emeline's marriage to the Decedent was procured by fraud, duress, and undue influence. Shannon asked the Orphans' Court to overrule Emeline's objection and rule that she was barred from receiving any share of the Estate based upon a Florida statute and/or under the common law doctrine of unclean hands.

         Thereafter, Emeline filed in the Orphans' Court her "Election to take Statutory Share of the Estate," pursuant to Md. Code (2001, 2011 Repl. Vol.), section 3-203(b) of the Estates and Trusts Article ("ET").

         Following a hearing in the Orphans' Court, a two-judge panel issued an opinion and order. The court, applying Maryland law, found, in pertinent part, that the Decedent was domiciled in Maryland when he died; that Emeline procured her marriage to the Decedent by undue influence; and that in light of her conduct and by operation of a Florida statute, she was ineligible to receive any benefit from the Estate.

         Emeline appealed, and in her brief, presented three questions which we have condensed and rephrased as two:

I. Did the Orphans' Court err by determining that the Decedent was domiciled in Maryland when he died?
II. Did the Orphans' Court err or exceed its authority by denying Emeline her statutory share of the Estate based upon a finding that her marriage to the Decedent was procured by undue influence?

         At oral argument, Emeline abandoned the first issue, clarified that she was not challenging the factual finding of undue influence and, for the first time, argued that the Orphans' Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. For the following reasons, we hold that the Orphans' Court had subject matter jurisdiction and did not err. We shall affirm the judgment of the Orphans' Court.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         The Orphans' Court held a three-day evidentiary hearing in December 2015. In her case and on behalf of the Estate, Shannon testified and called six witnesses: Jeffrey Komins ("Jeffrey"), Shannon's husband; Hannah; Craig Nicholson, a close friend of the Decedent; Carlton Green, Esq., the Decedent's personal lawyer and friend, who testified both as a lay witness and as an expert in the field of estate and probate administration, real estate law, and business law; Brian Crowley, M.D., who testified as an expert in psychiatry; and Emeline. In her case, Emeline testified and called two expert witnesses: Robert Young, Esq., who testified as an expert in estate and probate law; and Christine Tellefsen, M.D., who testified as an expert in psychiatry. We summarize the pertinent evidence.

         The Decedent was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in and around Prince George's County, where his father was a real estate developer involved in the establishment of College Park. In 1937, the Decedent's father built a family home at 4502 Beechwood Road in College Park, which has since been designated as a historic property ("Beechwood Road House").

         When the Decedent was in his early twenties, he married Patricia Morris Watson. Hannah was born of that marriage in 1956.[2] Their marriage ended in divorce around 1959.

         In October 1959, the Decedent married Jasmine. They lived together in Hollywood, Florida. Shannon was born to them in 1966.

         In 1978, the Decedent, Jasmine, and Shannon moved to Maryland, where they lived in a house on Drexel Road in College Park that was owned by the Decedent's mother. (The Decedent's father had died many years earlier.)

         In 1987, the Decedent's mother died and the Decedent inherited the Beechwood Road House. Shannon lived there with the Decedent and Jasmine until 2004, when she married her husband and purchased her own house nearby.

         The Decedent's family owned and managed numerous apartment buildings in College Park, which he inherited. During his marriage to Jasmine, she managed the rental properties by collecting payments, advertising vacancies, paying taxes, and arranging repairs. The Decedent and Jasmine also owned thoroughbred racehorses and maintained an account with Maryland Thoroughbred Purse Account, Inc., in Laurel ("Purse Account"). Their income was derived from these business assets.

         The Decedent and Jasmine were "snowbirds" who routinely traveled to Hollywood, Florida during the winter months, from December through March, to stay in a house at 937 Adams Street that Jasmine owned ("the Florida Property"). They made their last trip to the Florida Property together in early 2012, shortly before Jasmine died.

         During his marriage to Jasmine, the Decedent was physically active and social. He played golf several times each week. He and Jasmine went to the racetrack together multiple times each week, went out to dinner, went to the movies, and hosted family for cookouts and celebrations. Shannon and Jeffrey have two children, and the Decedent was extremely close to them, spending time with them on a weekly basis.

         In 2009, Jasmine was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The Decedent was her primary caregiver during her illness, taking her to all her medical appointments. By the end of 2011, Jasmine's cancer had metastasized and she was terminally ill.

         In early 2012, shortly before Jasmine died, the Decedent took her to Bloomingdales in Chevy Chase to buy makeup. Emeline worked at the cosmetics counter and assisted them. Emeline learned during that encounter that Jasmine was sick. Emeline also learned that the Decedent owned racehorses and she expressed interest in seeing his horses race. Emeline and the Decedent later arranged to meet for lunch at a P.F. Chang's restaurant.[3] Emeline denied that the Decedent disclosed that Jasmine was dying of cancer during their lunch.

         Jasmine died on March 17, 2012. According to the Decedent's longtime friend and lawyer, Mr. Green, the Decedent was "absolutely devastated." Shannon described him as "despondent" and a "mess." Jeffrey characterized him as "very depressed." The Decedent told Jeffrey that there was "no need for [him] to be around anymore." The day after Jasmine's funeral, the Decedent drove to Florida alone. He stayed for just a day or two and then drove back. He later told Shannon that he ...


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