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Goodwin v. Colchester Probate Court

Appellate Court of Connecticut

January 19, 2016

JAMES GOODWIN
v.
COLCHESTER PROBATE COURT ET AL

         Argued October 22, 2015

          Appeal from the order and decree of the Probate Court for the district of Colchester, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New London, where the court, Cosgrove, J., granted the motion to intervene as defendants filed by Stephen Fedus, Jr., et al.; thereafter, the court, Hon. Thomas F. Parker, judge trial referee, granted the motion to intervene as defendants filed by Madeline Goodwin et al.; subsequently, the matter was tried to the court, Hon. Joseph Q. Koletsky, judge trial referee; thereafter, the court, Hon. Joseph Q. Koletsky, judge trial referee, denied the motion to dismiss for failure to present a prima facie case filed by the defendant John Fedus et al.; judgment sustaining the plaintiff's appeal, from which the defendant John Fedus appealed to this court.

          Affirmed.

          SYLLABUS

         The plaintiff appealed to the trial court from the order and decree of the defendant Probate Court denying the plaintiff's petition pursuant to statute (§ 45a-288) for ancillary administration of the decedent's estate, which included the decedent's interest in 130 acres of land in Colchester that she co-owned with certain defendant relatives. The plaintiff, his mother, and the decedent lived together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, until the plaintiff married. In 2000, the decedent asked the plaintiff to write her will. The decedent gave the plaintiff a small pad of paper and told him what to write. The plaintiff used his pen to write the will but, when he handed it to the decedent for her review, she used her pen to make several changes, and she then signed the will. The decedent died approximately six years later, and to the knowledge of the parties, she had not executed another document purporting to be a will or created an inter vivos trust. After the decedent's death, the plaintiff filed a petition to probate the will with the Register For Probate of Wills for the county of Philadelphia. After receiving notice of the petition, the relatives objected to the admission of the will to probate. Prior to a trial in the Pennsylvania court, the relatives withdrew their challenge to the admission of the will to probate, and the Pennsylvania court decreed the matter settled, ended, and discontinued, remanding the matter to the register of wills, which admitted the will to probate. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a petition in the Probate Court seeking ancillary administration of the decedent's estate pursuant to § 45a-288, to which the relatives objected. The Probate Court issued an order declining to admit the will to probate on an ancillary basis because sufficient objection had been shown within the meaning of § 45a-288 and, therefore, the Probate Court ordered the plaintiff to offer competent proof of the contents and legal sufficiency of the will. The plaintiff appealed to the trial court, claiming that the relatives' objections were without merit and insufficient to preclude ancillary administration. Thereafter, the trial court denied the relatives' motion to dismiss for failure to make out a prima facie case, which raised numerous arguments as to the legal sufficiency of the will. The trial court subsequently sustained the plaintiff's appeal, concluding that the plaintiff had satisfied the requirements of § 45a-288 (a) by filing an authentic and exemplified copy of the will proved and established by a court of competent jurisdiction, and that no sufficient objection had been proffered. On appeal to this court, the defendant relative, J, claimed that the trial court erred when it admitted the will to ancillary administration pursuant to § 45a-288, alleging that the will was insufficient as a matter of law to convey real property in this state, that the trial court improperly denied the motion to dismiss, and that the trial court improperly found as a matter of law that § 45a-288 vested the Probate Court with unfettered discretion to determine the existence of a sufficient objection. Held :

         1. The trial court properly sustained the plaintiff's appeal and determined that the documents he presented to the Probate Court were in accord with the requirements of § 45a-288 (a) and that no sufficient objection to the will had been shown; the record supported the trial court's findings that the plaintiff had presented the Probate Court with an authenticated and exemplified copy of the decedent's will that was proved and established by a court of competent jurisdiction in accordance with the requirements of § 45a-288 (a), and that the relatives had not presented any evidence that the decedent's will did not comply with Pennsylvania law, that the will was not properly probated in Pennsylvania, that the record of the Pennsylvania proceedings were not in order, that the plaintiff had failed to request that copies of the documents submitted be filed and recorded, or that the plaintiff failed to provide a description of the land.

         2. The trial court properly denied the relatives' motion to dismiss for failure to make out a prima facie case because the only issue was whether a sufficient objection had been made to the admission of the will under § 45a-288, not whether the will was legally sufficient, and the same reasons that supported the trial court's decision sustaining the appeal also supported its decision to deny the motion to dismiss.

         Eric H. Rothauser, with whom, on the brief, was Lee B. Ross, for the appellant (defendant John Fedus).

         Kerin M. Woods, for the appellee (plaintiff).

         Lavine, Beach and Norcott, Js.

          OPINION

          [162 Conn.App. 414] LAVINE, J.

          This probate appeal concerns a challenge to the ancillary administration of a holographic will executed by Rose F. Fedus (decedent) on December 21, 2000, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On appeal, the defendant John Fedus[1] claims that the Superior Court, sitting as a court of probate, improperly sustained the appeal of the plaintiff, James K. Goodwin, from a decree of the Court of Probate for the district of Colchester by finding that there was " no sufficient objection" to the will pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-288.[2] We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

          [162 Conn.App. 415] There is no dispute as to the following facts and procedural history. For forty years, until her death on June 1, 2006, the decedent and her sister Mae C. Fedus (Mae Fedus) lived together in a house on Rutland Street in Philadelphia (house). The plaintiff, James K. Goodwin, is the only child of Mae Fedus. At the time of her death, the decedent had the following known heirs at law: Mae Fedus; her brother Stephen Fedus, Jr. (Stephen Fedus), her sister Alyce Daggett, and her nephew, John Fedus, the defendant on appeal in this court.[3] The decedent and her heirs at law were the co-owners in equal shares of 130 acres of land (farm) in the town of Colchester.

         On or about October 8, 2008, the plaintiff filed a petition for probate and grant of letters with the Register for Probate of Wills (register of wills) for the county of Philadelphia, seeking to probate a handwritten document entitled " Last Will and Testament" (will).[4] Although the decedent had signed the will, her signature had not been witnessed.[5] The will bears the handwriting [162 Conn.App. 416] of more than one person, including that of the plaintiff. The two initials " F." that appear in the first and second lines of the will, as well as the words " and Mae Fedus" on the last line, were written in a different color of ink and in a different hand from that of the remaining text. See footnote 5 of this opinion. The decedent's signature was in a handwriting different from the handwriting of the text. To the knowledge of the parties, the decedent had not executed another document purporting to be a will, and she had not created an inter vivos trust.

         The plaintiff gave notice of the Pennsylvania petition to probate to Stephen Fedus, Alyce Daggett, and the defendant (collectively, Connecticut relatives). On October 8, 2008, the register of wills issued a notice granting Letters of Administration--CTA in the Estate of Rose Fedus to the plaintiff. The Connecticut relatives objected to the admission of the will to probate in Pennsylvania, but prior to trial in the Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' Court Division (Orphans' Court), they withdrew their challenge to the admission of the will to probate. On May 24, 2010, the Orphans' Court decreed the matter " Settled, Ended and Discontinued" and remanded the matter to the register of wills.[6]

         On July 22, 2010, the plaintiff filed a petition for ancillary administration of the decedent's estate (ancillary administration) in the Court of Probate for the district of Colchester (probate court). The Connecticut relatives objected to the admission of the will for ancillary administration. The probate court, Judge Jodi M. [162 Conn.App. 417] Thomas, held a hearing on the objection to the ancillary administration and thereafter issued her opinion. In her opinion, the probate judge stated in part: " The Court finds that the Will is certainly questionable in appearance, having been handwritten in at least two different hands and having no witnesses. There is little doubt that it would not be admitted primarily under Connecticut law. There was also evidence adduced that undue influence by the [plaintiff] and [Mae Fedus] over the decedent may have occurred; that the decedent was a meticulous and capable woman, who would not have left such an important legal decision to chance by virtue of a handwritten, unwitnessed document; and that her bounty during her lifetime extended beyond the [plaintiff] and his family to her other siblings and their families (to which the Will is contrary).[7] " (Footnote in original.) In re Estate of Rose F. Fedus, Probate Court, district of Colchester (January 3, 2011) (25 Quinnipiac Prob. L.J. 263, 266-67 [2012]).

         On the basis of the foregoing, the probate court issued an order stating: " [T]he court declines to admit the alleged instrument, on an ancillary basis, as the last will and testament of the decedent, Rose Fedus, at this time as 'sufficient objection' has been shown within the meaning of . . . § 45a-288. It is now incumbent upon the applicant to 'offer competent proof of the contents and legal sufficiency of the will' as per . . . § 45a-288 and in accordance with other applicable Connecticut law." [8] Id., 267. The plaintiff appealed from the order of [162 Conn.App. 418] the probate court to the Superior Court. See General Statutes § 45a-186 (a).

         In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he was aggrieved by the order of the probate court for the reason that (1) his petition for ancillary probate satisfies the requirements of § 45a-288 (a) as the will has been proved and established out of this state by a court of competent jurisdiction, the petition includes an authenticated and exemplified copy of the will and the record of the proceedings proving and establishing the will, and it includes a complete written statement of the decedent's property in Connecticut; (2) the adjudication by the register of wills and the adjudication on appeal by the Orphans' Court are final and conclusive and are entitled to full faith and credit pursuant to the constitution of the United States, article four, § 1; (3) the adjudications of the register of wills and on appeal therefrom of the Orphans' Court are final and conclusive, therefore the Connecticut relatives' claims having been fully and fairly litigated in Pennsylvania are barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel.[9] During [162 Conn.App. 419] trial, the plaintiff amended his complaint, without objection from the Connecticut relatives, to allege that the objections of the Connecticut relatives to the admission of the will to ancillary probate are without merit and are not sufficient objection to allow the probate court to preclude the will from ancillary administration and/or to require competent proof of the contents and legal sufficiency of the will.

         Prior to trial, at the request of the court, the parties submitted pretrial briefs. In their briefs, the Connecticut relatives contended that the appeal should be decided as a matter of law on the grounds that the will is legally insufficient, vague, contrary to Connecticut law and public policy, and that it had been revoked. They further argued that, if they were to prevail on their legal claims, there would be no reason to present evidence regarding the decedent's testamentary capacity and whether she was under undue influence. The trial court rejected the Connecticut relatives' request to decide the appeal on the legal issues they raised apart from the facts, and commenced trial on October 2, 2013.

         At trial the plaintiff testified as to his relationship with the decedent and how her will came to be written. The plaintiff grew up in the house his mother, Mae Fedus, shared with the decedent and was raised by the two women. He lived in the house until he was thirty-five years of age when he married and moved to a nearby town.[10] After he married, the plaintiff ate lunch with the decedent and Mae Fedus in their house daily during the work week.[11] One day a week after work, the plaintiff took Mae Fedus to the grocery store and then spent the night in the house. He, his wife, June A. [162 Conn.App. 420] Goodwin (June Goodwin), and their daughters[12] visited the decedent and Mae Fedus on some weekends and on holidays. The plaintiff, his wife, and their three daughters had a close relationship with the decedent, who treated his daughters as if they were her grandchildren. She babysat for them and provided financial support for their education related activities. The decedent also gave savings bonds to the plaintiff's daughters on each birthday and at Christmas.

         The decedent suffered a stroke in April, 2000, was hospitalized, and spent more than five months in a rehabilitation facility. She returned to the house in October, 2000, and was confined to a bed in the dining room. Due to the stroke, she could not walk and therefore used a wheelchair. The stroke, however, did not affect her mental capacity, cognition, or her speech.[13]

         Stephen Fedus sent the decedent and Mae Fedus a Christmas card postmarked December 15, 2000. The [162 Conn.App. 421] Christmas card contained a note written by Stephen Fedus, which stated that " if one of us should die, the probate court and the lawyers will again have a ball, including estate taxes. Rose and Mae we have to do some planning with Alyce & nephew John. I can't do it myself." (Emphasis in original.) In his note, Stephen ...


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