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Estate of Sato v. Castro

July 21, 2005

IN RE ESTATE OF ANNE T. SATO; WILLIAME. SMITH, APPELLANT,
v.
TANJA H. CASTRO, SUCCESSOR PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF ANNE T. SATO, & ROBERTJ. PLESHAW, SPECIALMASTER, APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (ADM-2250-97). (Hon. José M. López, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ruiz, Associate Judge

Argued May 17, 2005

Before RUIZ and GLICKMAN, Associate Judges, and KING, Senior Judge.

The appellant, former personal representative of his wife's estate, appeals from an order of the trial court requiring him to repay to the estate funds he paid to himself as a creditor without having filed a formal notice of his claim with the Register of Wills. We agree with the trial court's interpretation that the probate statute's notice requirement applies to claims of the personal representative. We remand the case, however, for the trial court's exercise of discretion in determining whether appellant's claim in this case should be disallowed due to the appellant's noncompliance with the formal filing requirements.

I.

The appellant and the decedent lived together as common law husband and wife for approximately ten years prior to her death. Appellant claims that during their marriage he paid off some of his wife's personal debt in order to secure refinancing on their home, presumably to improve their joint credit rating.*fn1 The appellant's wife died on October 15, 1997, leaving a properly executed Last Will and Testament that appointed her husband, the appellant, as personal representative.

After the appellant filed a petition in the probate division of the Superior Court, the will was admitted to probate and the appellant was appointed personal representative on March 25, 1998. The appellant hired an attorney to assist him in probating the will. The appellant filed an inventory of the estate, but, either through his own neglect or that of his attorney, he never filed with the probate court any of the required accounts. Various third-party creditors made claims against the estate, which appellant settled by paying a prorated amount because the estate funds were insufficient to pay all the debts in full. These payments included a payment to himself of $34,588, a similarly prorated amount of the debt he claimed against the estate. According to appellant, he provided his attorney with information about all of his wife's outstanding debts, including the debt he claimed. The fact central to this appeal is that appellant did not file with the Register of Wills a formal claim against the estate for the debt he claims is owed to him. While it is unclear whether, without the payment to appellant, the estate funds would have been sufficient to satisfy the third-party claims in full, it is indisputable that the third-party creditors received a lesser payment because of the appellant's payment of his own claim. It is also not clear from the record or from the briefs who the beneficiaries of the will were, but it appears that the decedent's son, at least, was a beneficiary.

Because he failed to file the proper accountings, the probate court issued an order on January 2, 2002 removing the appellant as personal representative and appointing appellee Tanja H. Castro, Esquire as successor representative. On October 16, 2002, upon motion from the successor representative, the trial court appointed appellee Robert J. Pleshaw as special master to supervise the case. After investigation, the successor representative discovered the appellant's payment to himself from the estate funds. The successor representative and the special master both requested the appellant to return those funds to the estate. The appellant did not do so. The special master then filed a report and recommendation with the court on April 18, 2003, recommending that the appellant be required to return the funds in question.

After holding an evidentiary hearing, the trial court issued a written order in which it held that, even though appellant was the personal representative, he was required to file with the Register of Wills a formal notice of his own claim before he could pay himself from the estate. The court found that because the appellant's failure to do so was not inadvertent, appellant's claim was barred. As a result, the trial court entered judgment against appellant, requiring that he repay the funds he had paid to himself, plus various fees resulting from the appointment of the special master.*fn2 The appellant filed a timely notice of appeal.*fn3

II.

The issue before the court is whether the trial court erred in disallowing appellant's claim against the estate because it was not filed with the Register of Wills. In considering an order or judgment from the probate division where the case was tried to the bench, this court "may review both as to the facts and the law, but the judgment may not be set aside except for errors of law unless it appears that the judgment is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it." D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (2001); see also Drevenak v. Abendschein, 773 A.2d 396, 415 (D.C. 2001). This court reviews the trial court's interpretation of a statute de novo. See Cass v. District of Columbia, 829 A.2d 480, 482 (D.C. 2003).

The probate statute provides that "all claims against a decedent's estate, whether . . . founded on contract or other legal basis, shall be barred against the estate . . . unless presented within 6 months after the date of the first publication of notice of the appointment of a personal representative. . . ." D.C. Code § 20-903 (a)(1). Further, "[a] claimant shall present a claim against a decedent's estate by delivering or mailing, return receipt requested, a written statement of the claim . . . : (1) to the personal representative with a copy to the Register [of Wills]; or (2) to the Register [of Wills] with a copy to the personal representative." D.C. Code § 20-905 (a). However, if notice is given to either the personal representative or the Register of Wills, a claim nonetheless "shall be deemed presented" if the failure to notify both was "inadvertent." D.C. Code § 20-905 (a)(2). The trial court has discretion to disallow a claim that does not meet the statutory requirements. See D.C. Code § 20-905 (c).

Appellant acknowledges that he never filed a formal notice with the Register of Wills of the debt he claims the estate owed him.*fn4 Nor does he dispute that he paid himself $34,588 from estate funds. Thus, there is no question that appellant did not satisfy the express terms of the probate statute requiring timely notice of the claim to the Register of Wills.

The trial court found no evidence that this failure should be excused as "inadvertent" with the meaning of the statute, see D.C. Code ยง 20-905 (a)(2), which the trial court interpreted as meaning "careless" or resulting from "lack of attention." Specifically, the trial court found that the appellant was familiar with the claim notice process from responding to notices of claims filed by other creditors. The appellant also had a probate attorney assisting him. Based on these facts, the trial court determined appellant's "failure to file his claim with the Register of Wills to be more akin to a willful or intentional decision than one resulting from a carelessness ...


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