On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals of Georgia handed down its opinion in In re Estate of Loyd.
The details of that case are fairly mundane in the world of probate litigation. A will was challenged on grounds of undue influence by a disinherited nephew of the deceased.
This blog post is primarily to highlight the take-away from the case for would-be challengers to a will: you may still have rights even if a deadline to object to a will has passed, but the probate court has discretion to limit those rights.
In Loyd, the caveator (objector) to the will filed a late caveat, less than a week past its due date. He was in default, as it is known in our law. This situation can be cured. But, unfortunately for him, the caveator waited ten months before filing his motion to re-open his default as a matter of right.
The Court of Appeals made short work of the issue. The probate court had denied the motion to re-open default, and the Court of Appeals said simply that it had the discretion to do so.
The Georgia Court of Appeals just handed down the case of In re Estate of Helms. In it, the all-too-familiar facts of an heir acting well outside his powers.
In this estate, one of the heirs - one Rowell - was named Executor in the will, but before the will's probate, "acted as a fiduciary without court appointment," receiving in excess of $100,000 in estate assets herself and variously managing the estate without authorization.
Presumably in part because of Rowell's misdeeds, a neutral administrator was appointed to manage the estate.
In other cases reported in this blog, the result of such activity has been a significant award against the misbehaving fiduciary, including punitive damages and attorney fees. In the present case, however, the probate court didn't go that way. There was apparently at least some controversy about the correctness of Rowell's spending, her attorney stating on the record that "we welcome an accounting." Further, the administrator the court appointed "did not pursue a forensic accounting to determine what Rowell had done with estate funds."
Instead, the administrator (1) took it upon herself to reduce Rowell's share by $61,684 and (2) sought a court approval of a plan of distribution based upon that reduction.
The probate court approved that plan, and all but one of the heirs - Rowell herself - agreed to it as well. On appeal, the Court stated that this sort of thing won't hold up. Rowell's poor decision making may indeed have been cause to reduce her final share, but according to the Court of Appeals, at least some evidence must be shown of why a particular reduction is appropriate.
In response to the administrator's argument on appeal, the Court reasoned that, even though the executor was granted the power of "pursuing claims on behalf of estate, it does not follow that the Administrator could arbitrarily choose an amount by which the value of Rowell's distributive share should be adjusted based upon a possible claim against Rowell by the estate or other beneficiaries."
Tanner Pittman, LLC is a West Georgia law firm that specializes in estate services, civil litigation, and legal transactions.
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