Articles Posted in Trusts & Estates

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Michael Easterday (“Decedent”) and Colleen Easterday (“Easterday”) married in 2004. Prior to marriage, Decedent worked for Federal Express and became a participant in a pension plan established by this former employer. He also purchased a $250,000 life insurance policy. Decedent designated Easterday the beneficiary of both during their marriage. The parties separated in 2013, and ultimately filed for divorce under section 3301(c) of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, which provided for a divorce by mutual consent of the parties. She and Decedent subsequently settled their economic claims in a property settlement agreement (“PSA”) executed December, 2013. Pertinent here, the PSA provided that the parties would each retain "100% of their respective stocks, pensions, retirement benefits, profit sharing plans, deferred compensation plans, etc. and shall execute whatever documents necessary to effectuate this agreement." The issue this case presented was one of first impression for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, namely, the interplay between provisions of the Divorce Code, the Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code, and the Rules of Civil Procedure. An ancillary issue centered on whether ERISA preempted a state law claim to enforce a contractual waiver to receive pension benefits by a named beneficiary. It was determined Decedent’s affidavit of consent was executed more than thirty days prior to the date it was submitted for filing (and rejected). The Superior Court ruled that because the local Prothonotary rejected the filing of Decedent’s affidavit of consent due to a lack of compliance with Rule 1920.42(b)(2)’s thirty-day validity requirement, grounds for divorce had not been established in accordance with section 3323(g)(2) of the Divorce Code at the time of Decedent’s death. Because the Decedent’s affidavit of consent was not filed, section 6111.2 of the PEF Code did not invalidate Easterday’s designation as the beneficiary of Decedent’s life insurance policy. Furthermore, the Superior Court determined ERISA did not preempt the state law breach of contract claim to recover funds paid pursuant to an ERISA-qualified employee benefit plan. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court's judgment. View "In Re: Estate of Easterday" on Justia Law

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This appeal addressed the meaning and effect of section 5513 of Pennsylvania’s Probate Estates and Fiduciaries Code, which related to the appointment of emergency guardians. The Superior Court held that an emergency order for a guardianship of an estate automatically expired after thirty days. The parties did not challenge the vitality of the emergency guardianship in the trial court. Nor did either party raise any claim before the Superior Court regarding the termination of the guardianship order or the appropriate interpretation of the Termination Provisions. In addressing an issue actually raised on appeal, the Superior Court further held that an individual subject to emergency guardianship is not incapacitated and is not precluded from making decisions about his property even when his guardian has been ordered by the court to do so on his behalf. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined it was error for the Superior Court to consider and opine on the validity of the order at issue in the underlying case on the basis of the Termination Provisions. Moreover, the Court held that an individual under the protection of an emergency guardianship order has been determined to lack sufficient capacity to make certain decisions and that the extent of his decision-making capacity depends on the specific “powers, duties and liabilities” afforded to the guardian by court order. The Supreme Court therefore vacated the Superior Court’s decision and remanded the matter to that court for further proceedings. View "Gavin v. Loeffelbein" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to determine rightful title to a parcel of real property claimed by competing grantees, each of whom invoked a real or purported conveyance from the property’s owner. An additional issue under consideration was the application of res judicata and collateral estoppel during estate administration proceedings with regard to an earlier order of the Orphans’ Court determining the validity of a will. Relying upon a presumption that valid delivery of a deed occurs on the date of its execution and acknowledgment, the Superior Court held that title to the real estate vested in the grantee of the earlier, unrecorded instrument. The Superior Court further held that, where the Orphans’ Court determined that a will was valid and permitted a photocopy of that will to be probated, a participating party’s subsequent claim that the will was revoked was barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. The Supreme Court determined the Orphans’ Court’s decision was supported by competent evidence, the court applied the correct principles of law in evaluating the question of delivery, and the court did not abuse its discretion in determining who possessed superior title to the property at issue by virtue of the 2006 Deeds. In reversing the Orphans’ Court’s decision on that issue, the Superior Court erred. When the parties litigated the alleged dissipation of estate assets, they did so within the context of those same estate administration proceedings. The Supreme Court concluded that a party’s challenge to the Orphan’s Court’s order did not arise within the context of subsequent litigation following a “final order,” but, rather, was advanced within the same proceedings as the challenged order; neither res judicata nor collateral estoppel served to preclude her claim. In this regard as well, the order of the Superior Court was reversed. View "In Re: Estate of Plance; Appeal of: Plance" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was a matter of first impression: the effect of 20 Pa.C.S. 7710.2 (enacted in 2006) upon the scope of the assets used to calculate the pretermitted spousal share. The named beneficiaries of the Trust upon Decedent’s death were his then-wife Joanne, and the children born to Decedent and Joanne. Pursuant to the terms of the Trust, Decedent had the prerogative to receive any portion of the trust income during his lifetime, to draw any amount of the trust principal for his own welfare, comfort, and support, and to terminate the Trust. Joanne died on August 15, 2010. On December 13, 2010, Decedent prepared a Last Will and Testament. Approximately one year later, on December 30, 2011, Decedent married Appellee Mary Jo Kulig. Since the will had been executed before his second marriage, it made no provision for Kulig, nor did the will include any indication that Decedent had contemplated remarriage when he executed it. On February 3, 2012, barely one month after marrying Kulig, Decedent died, survived by Kulig and by appellants (his children), Carrie Budke and James Kulig. By the terms of the Trust, if Joanne predeceased Decedent, the balance of the Trust corpus was to be divided and distributed to Children according to the Trust’s terms. Kulig undisputedly was entitled upon Decedent’s death to an ERISA benefit plan. The parties stipulated that Kulig, a pretermitted spouse under Pennsylvania law, was entitled to receive the same share of Decedent’s estate to which she would have been entitled had he died intestate. The Children filed a petition for declaratory judgment before the Orphans’ Court seeking a declaration that the Trust was excluded from Kulig’s pretermitted spousal share. Kulig opposed the petition, arguing primarily that, in calling for the application of the same interpretive principles to trusts that apply to wills, Section 7710.2 of the Code established that inter vivos trusts, like other assets, must be considered part of the intestate estate for purposes of calculating the pretermitted share. The Superior Court held Section 7710.2 mandated application to the Trust of the same presumption applicable to the will under Subsection 2507(3). Accordingly, the estate comprising the pretermitted spousal share necessarily included the Trust corpus. The Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court’s determination that the revocable inter vivos trust at issue should have been included in Decedent’s estate for purposes of discerning the pretermitted spouse’s statutory entitlement under 20 Pa.C.S. 2507. View "Re: Trust Under Deed of D. Kulig; Apl of Budke" on Justia Law

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In an appeal by allowance, the issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether the Superior Court applied the correct statute of limitations for a survival action in a medical professional liability case. In 2005, Elise Dubose was admitted to Albert Einstein Medical Center (Einstein) after she fell in her home and sustained severe head injuries, including anoxia and a brain injury. She was transferred to Willowcrest Nursing Home where Mrs. Dubose suffered malnourishment, dehydration, conscious pain from bedsores, a bone infection, and a sepsis systemic infection. An ulcers located at the sacral region of the spine which Mrs. Dubose developed during her initial hospitalization, gradually increased in size. The sacral ulcer became infected with bacteria from contact with feces. This infection caused sepsis in Mrs. Dubose in September 2007, and she was admitted to Einstein with sepsis. On October 18, 2007, Mrs. Dubose died from sepsis and multiple pressure sores. On August 13, 2009, Robert Dubose, as administrator for Mrs. Dubose's estate, filed a complaint against Willowcrest and Albert Einstein Healthcare Network (collectively Appellants) sounding in negligence and alleged wrongful death. The Supreme Court concluded the statute of limitations for medical professional liability cases in the form of wrongful death or survival actions was two years from the time of the decedent’s death. View "Dubose v. Willowcrest Nur. Home" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's consideration was whether individuals who were not named in an executed testamentary document have standing to bring a legal malpractice action against the testator’s attorney, as purported third-party beneficiaries to the contract for legal services between the testator and his attorney. After review, the Court concluded such individuals do not have standing to sue the testator’s attorney for a breach of contract. The Court therefore reversed the Superior Court and remanded for reinstatement of the trial court’s order granting summary judgment and dismissing the claims. View "Est. of Robert Agnew v. Ross" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates

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This dispute arose out of an attempt to enter a copy of a lost will into probate. Decedent Isabel Wilner died at age 91 in March 2011. Decedent never married. Her intestate heirs were her niece, appellee Dana Wilner and her nephew David Wilner, who was not involved in this litigation. Charles Welles, Esq., a lawyer in Tunkhannock, drafted a will for Decedent, nominating Decedent’s friend Margaret Young as executrix and naming the Decedent's church as the primary beneficiary. Decedent executed the will in June 2007. Attorney Welles made two conformed copies of the will: one copy for his files and gave the other copy was the original will and given to Decedent. Decedent’s live-in caregiver was appellant Linda Baker, a close friend and a cousin by marriage. In April 2010, Attorney Welles prepared two additional documents for Decedent: a codicil which specifically referenced the June 2007 will and changed the executrix from Young to Baker, and a deed transferring ownership of Decedent’s Tunkhannock home to the Pennsylvania church while retaining a life estate. The executed deed was recorded with the county recorder of deeds. As for the codicil, Attorney Welles followed the same procedure as with the will: he made conformed copies, kept one copy for his files, and gave the original and a conformed copy to Decedent. Decedent died on March 16, 2011. Shortly thereafter, Baker went to Decedent’s house to retrieve the will. She discovered that the will had been removed from a downstairs metal box, although other items – including two original codicils and the envelope that had contained the will – were still there. When Baker checked an upstairs safe, she found that all papers had been removed, including a conformed copy of the will. Baker conducted a thorough search of the home but was unable to locate any of the missing items. Without the original will, Baker sought to have Attorney Welles’ conformed copy of the will, together with the original codicils, entered into probate. The court held two evidentiary hearings to determine whether the conformed copy of the will, as produced by Attorney Welles from his files, should have been accepted into probate. During the hearings, the witnesses to the will (members of Attorney Welles' office) testified that they saw Decedent execute the will. However, only one was able to testify to the will’s contents, stating that the terms appearing in the conformed copy accurately reflected the contents of the original will. The Superior Court reversed, concluding that the orphans’ court erred in accepting the conformed copy on the testimony of a single witness. The Supreme Court granted further review to consider the continuing vitality of the two-witness rule and, in particular, whether it properly applied to a will’s contents, as opposed to its execution. Finding that the Superior Court erred in reversing the orphans' court's order, the Supreme Court reinstated the original order. View "In re: Estate of Wilner" on Justia Law

Posted in: Trusts & Estates

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The decedent resided in Appellants’ long-term skilled nursing care facility between March and August, 2010. Due to the alleged abuse and neglect inflicted upon her throughout her stay, Decedent suffered a multitude of injuries and illnesses that eventually resulted in her death. Appellee filed suit claiming Appellants knowingly sacrificed the quality of care given to their residents. Relevant to this appeal, Appellants filed preliminary objections seeking to enforce an arbitration agreement which Appellee signed, along with general admission paperwork upon Decedent’s admission to the facility. Appellants appealed the Superior Court’s decision affirming, in relevant part, the trial court’s order overruling Appellants’ preliminary objections seeking to compel arbitration and reserving for trial the underlying negligence action filed by Appellee, daughter of the decedent, and executrix of Decedent’s estate. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court and remanded this case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Wert v. Manorcare of Carlisle" on Justia Law

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Andre Leonti, a resident of Fayette County, died intestate in 2006. Thereafter, Cheryl Keefer, a purported friend of Decedent, filed a petition with the Register for the grant of letters of administration which listed the heirs and personal assets of Decedent as "unknown" and indicated that there was no real estate. The Register refused to grant letters to Keefer because she did not have Decedent's death certificate, was not his next of kin, and, therefore, was not a person entitled to letters. Keefer, through her attorney, filed a petition to authorize the Register to issue letters to her without producing a death certificate and further directing the Mon Valley Hospital to release the Decedent's remains for a funeral and burial. Keefer attached a purported copy of a power of attorney executed by Decedent. No one contested this petition, and, on the same day the petition was filed, the orphan's court issued an order authorizing and directing the Register to issue letters "without the necessity of requiring a death certificate," and further ordering and directing the Hospital to release Decedent's remains to Keefer for funeral and burial. In compliance with this order, the Register issued letters to Keefer, but did not secure a bond from her. Several months later, Keefer filed with the Register an inventory of the estate. One month later, Appellee Elvira Dorsey, a resident of Texas who claimed to be Decedent's niece, became aware of Decedent's estate, and alleged she was the sole surviving heir of Decedent. Appellee petitioned for Keefer's removal as administratrix. The orphan's court granted Appellee's petition, issued an order, and required Keefer to deliver to Appellee the custody and possession of Decedent's estate's assets. Keefer, however, did not deliver the assets of the estate to Appellee. The orphan's court issued an order holding Keefer in contempt, sentencing Keefer to six months imprisonment, and directing that a verdict be entered in favor of Appellee and against Keefer in the amount of $192,769.19. Appellee filed praecipes for entry of judgment with the Fayette County Prothonotary and the Register to enter judgment against Keefer. Appellee then filed a complaint against the Register, individually, and Western Surety Company, alleging that the Register and Surety were liable for damages resulting from the Register's failure to secure bonding, which, Appellee asserted, was required by law. In this appeal by allowance, the primary issue this case presented to the Supreme Court was the applicability of governmental and official immunity with respect to a claim alleging a violation of bonding requirements mandated under the Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code ("PEF Code"). Ultimately, the Court held that the General Assembly intended that 20 Pa.C.S.A. 3172 created a targeted form of accountability for such registers, resting outside the scope of governmental and official immunity. Therefore, the Fayette County Register of Wills was not immune under the Tort Claims Act from liability for an alleged violation of Section 3172. The case was remanded back to the orphan's court for an assessment of the applicability of the the immunity defense, and for a more developed factual record. View "Dorsey v. Redman" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the Commonwealth Court correctly interpreted 24 Pa.C.S. 8507(e) to require that the Public School Employees' Retirement System nomination of benefits form be completed in its entirely in the member/decedent's own hand in order to effectuate a valid change of beneficiary. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the Commonwealth Court erred, and held that the Board correctly determined that under the facts of this case, section 8507(e) allowed for distribution of retirement benefits at issue to the appellant. View "Snizaski v. Public School Employees' Retirement Board" on Justia Law