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Cheatle v. Cheatle

July 24, 1995

HARRY V. CHEATLE, APPELLANT,
v.
LORENE CHEATLE, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Hon. Peter H. Wolf, Trial Judge).

Before Terry, Farrell, and King, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King

KING, Associate Judge: This appeal arises out of a will contest in which appellant, Harry Cheatle ("Harry"), the brother of the deceased, Colonel Francis Edgar Cheatle ("Colonel"), challenged the right of their sister, appellee Lorene Cheatle ("Lorene"), to take as sole beneficiary under the Colonel's will, alleging her abuse and neglect of the Colonel hastened his death, and thus required her to forfeit her inheritance. The principal question on appeal is whether, where there has been no conviction for the criminal offense of involuntary manslaughter, a finding that the death of the testator was the result of gross neglect by the beneficiary is sufficient to mandate forfeiture of the beneficiary's right to take under the terms of a will. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that such a finding of gross neglect is insufficient as a matter of law to deprive a beneficiary of her right to receive her inheritance; accordingly, we affirm the trial court's judgment in favor of Lorene Cheatle.

I.

In July of 1984, at 71 years of age, Lorene came to live with her brother, 83 year-old Colonel Cheatle, after the death of his wife. According to the terms of the Colonel's will, executed in 1964, Lorene was his sole heir, designated to inherit his entire estate valued at over one million dollars, providing she survived him and his wife predecease him. Harry contends that "Lorene voluntarily assumed the duty to care for the Colonel after she arrived in Washington." Lorene, however, maintains the Colonel requested that she come live with him. While the nature and quality of Lorene's care is contested, it is undisputed that Lorene was the primary caretaker of the Colonel from 1984 until his death on April 24, 1992. The continuity of Lorene's care was interrupted by the separate hospitalizations of both Lorene and the Colonel, and temporary periods of care administered by independent home care professionals.

Following the Colonel's death on April 28, 1992, Lorene filed a petition to probate the Colonel's will. On April 30, 1992, the Colonel's brother, Harry, filed the instant will contest, alleging: (1) the 1964 will was revoked by operation of law because Lorene abused and neglected the Colonel and misap propriated his property (Count I); (2) Lorene forfeited her status as beneficiary by intentionally undermining the decedent's health to hasten his death (Count II); (3) Lorene unduly influenced and prevented the Colonel from revoking his 1964 will (Count III); (4) Lorene unduly influenced or coerced the Colonel to transfer assets into the joint names of the Colonel and Lorene (Count V); and (5) the Colonel executed a will subsequent to the 1964 will which was suppressed by Lorene (Count VI). Harry also sought appointment of a special administrator pendente lite, pursuant to D.C. Code § 20-531 (Count IV).

At a bench trial, which began on January 3, 1994, Harry maintained that Lorene, aware that she alone stood to benefit under the Colonel's will, "engaged in a pattern of conduct that undermined [the Colonel's] health and shortened his life." Specifically, Harry asserted that Lorene failed to provide the Colonel with sufficient food and water and failed to keep him clean; isolated him from friends and relatives; assumed control of his finances without his consent; interfered with the care provided to the Colonel by independent home care professionals; and sexually abused the Colonel. At the close of Harry's case-in-chief, the Court dismissed Counts III (fraud, coercion and undue influence) and VI (suppression of a later will). *fn1

Lorene claimed that she loved her brother and did her best to take care of him and meet his needs. She testified that she assisted the Colonel with his financial affairs at his request, maintained his household with the help of friends, and fired the home care personnel because they were "takeroverish" and "officious," and they improperly performed their duties. In sum, Lorene insisted that she did all she could to take care of her brother and see to his wishes.

The Colonel died in the hospital on April 24, 1992, of congestive heart failure and aspiration pneumonia at the age of ninety-one. Harry contends that Lorene's abuse shortened the Colonel's life by "predisposing him" to congestive heart failure. Harry's expert in geriatrics and elder abuse, Dr. Cefalu, testified that Lorene's conduct "predisposed [the Colonel] to a precarious and premature death." However, one of the Colonel's treating physicians testified at his videotaped deposition which was admitted at trial: "it was my opinion and the opinion of the team that [the Colonel's] diabetes mellitus contributed to his dehydration ... and malnutrition, and contributed almost certainly to his congestive heart failure."

The trial court found that "Lorene Cheatle did to Colonel Cheatle about all that the plaintiff said she did, except that I don't find that she acted with deliberate, specific malice toward the Colonel himself." The court found that Lorene was "selfish, angry, resentful, indignant, bitter, self-centered, spiteful, vindictive, paranoid and stingy," and that her "conduct did shorten the decedent's life." The court further found that the "net result" of Lorene's actions amounted to "benign neglect of Colonel Cheatle, indeed, perhaps very close to if not actual gross neglect." However, because the trial court could not find that Lorene's conduct was willful or designed to hasten the Colonel's death, "even such sad and terrible conduct [such as Lorene's] did not authorize [the court] to grant the relief requested." Accordingly, the court entered judgment in favor of Lorene on Counts I (revocation by operation of law) and II (forfeiture of rights as beneficiary because of wrongdoing), ruled that Counts IV (request for special administrator) and V (undue influence) were moot, and admitted the Colonel's will to probate. *fn2 This appeal followed.

II.

In this appeal, Harry challenges the court's refusal to grant the relief requested in Counts I and II. In Count I, Henry alleged that the Colonel's 1964 will was revoked by operation of law because, after assuming the duty to care for the Colonel, Lorene abused and neglected him, and wrongfully appropriated his property. In Count II, Harry alleged that because Lorene engaged in a pattern of conduct to shorten the Colonel's life, she forfeited her status as his beneficiary. In appealing the judgment against him on Counts I and II, Harry claims that the trial court erred in ruling that Lorene did not forfeit her right to take under the Colonel's will, alleging that the court should have applied the District of Columbia "slayer" statute, which provides:

A person convicted of felonious homicide of another person, by way of murder or manslaughter, takes no estate or interest in property of any kind from that other person by way of: (1) inheritance, distribution, devise, or bequest .... The estate, interest, or property to which the person so convicted would have succeeded or would have taken in any way from or after the death of the decedent goes, instead, as if the person so convicted had died before the decedent.

D.C. Code ยง 19-320 (1989 Repl.) (emphasis added). Harry further contends that, under the common law, an actual criminal conviction for murder or manslaughter was not necessary to invoke the slayer statute, and because the trial Judge's finding that Lorene grossly neglected the Colonel amounts to a finding of involuntary ...


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