Before Terry and Washington, Associate Judges, and King, Senior
The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, Senior Judge
Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia
(Hon. Kaye K. Christian, Trial Judge)
Brandenburger & Davis, Inc. ("Brandenburger") appeals the trial court's dismissal of its complaint, filed in the Probate Division of the Superior Court, seeking acknowledgment of, and payments pursuant to, assignment agreements with three recognized heirs and one unrecognized potential heir of the estate of Lossie Mae Lewis ("Estate"). We conclude that the assignment agreements confer standing upon Brandenburger to assert all of its claims in the Probate Division. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.
Brandenburger is an "heir hunter" corporation that locates previously undiscovered heirs and attempts to secure a partial assignment of their estate interests in exchange for providing them with specific information about their potential estate recovery. Appellees include the Estate, several heirs recognized by the Estate, and Freddie B. Lewis ("Freddie Lewis"), a potential heir who has not been recognized by the Estate.
Approximately two weeks after Ms. Lewis' death, *fn1 two of her sisters filed a petition for probate listing themselves as the sole heirs and "Interested persons" in her estate. Subsequently, Brandenburger researched Ms. Lewis' lineage and located other potential heirs. The issues in this case concern four of these previously undiscovered heirs - Freddie Lewis, Norman D. Lewis, Jr. ("Norman Lewis"), Dorothy M. Howard, and Shirley A. Sampson.
Brandenburger offered to reveal specific information about the Estate to each of the four individuals in exchange for an assignment of twenty-five percent of the value of the Estate property to which each would be entitled. *fn2 All four agreed. Three assignments were executed in Ohio and one was executed in California. *fn3 On March 23, 1994, the four heirs entered a formal appearance in the probate proceeding. Since that date, Norman Lewis, Howard, and Sampson have been recognized as heirs by the Estate. The Estate has declined, however, to recognize Freddie Lewis as an heir. Other than her initial appearance, Freddie Lewis has not pressed her claim or made any other appearances.
On or about December 12, 1997, the Estate made a partial asset distribution to the recognized heirs in the amount of $1,500.00. *fn4 Brandenburger, however, did not receive any payment. On May 21, 1998, Brandenburger filed a complaint in the Probate Division of the Superior Court seeking monies from the December 12, 1997, distribution as well as recognition of its entitlement to any other distribution of the Estate, past or future, as a result of its assignment agreements.
During a pre-trial conference, the trial court ruled that the Estate did not have to recognize Brandenburger's assignment agreements with the heirs because the Estate was not a party to them. *fn5 Implicit in that ruling was the determination by the trial court that, despite the assignments, Brandenburger was not an "Interested person" under the District of Columbia's probate law. The trial court stated that Brandenburger "must seek its remedy against the subject heirs in a collection action filed in the Civil Division of this Court or a Court having jurisdiction [but not the Probate Division] over the alleged parties." Moreover, the trial court held that Brandenburger lacked standing to establish Freddie Lewis' status as an heir of the Estate.
On appeal, Brandenburger argues first that its assignment agreements with Norman Lewis, Howard, and Sampson, the three heirs recognized by the Estate, should confer upon it the same rights possessed by them. Since these recognized heirs are "Interested persons" under D.C. Code § 20-101 (d)(1) (1997), Brandenburger contends that it should also, as an assignee, be accorded that status for the purpose of presenting its claims to the Probate Division. Second, Brandenburger asserts that its status as an assignee should likewise permit it to present proof of Freddie Lewis' heirship. For the reasons stated below, we agree with Brandenburger on both points.
While we will separately address the issues concerning the three recognized heirs and those concerning Freddie Lewis, it is necessary to resolve initially an issue common to all of the assignments, namely, whether Brandenburger should be deemed an "Interested person" under the District of ...