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Hynes v. Jones

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

July 25, 2017

CAROLYNE Y. HYNES
v.
SHARON M. JONES

          Argued March 6, 2017

          Michael P. Kaelin, with whom, on the brief, was William N. Wright, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Sheldon, Beach and Flynn, Js. [*]

         Syllabus

         The plaintiff, the administratrix of her decedent husband's estate, appealed to this court from the judgment of the Superior Court after it dismissed her appeal from the decree of the Norwalk-Wilton Probate Court entered in connection with a payment made to her for the benefit of the decedent's and the plaintiff's minor child through a federally sponsored victim compensation fund. The decedent had died intestate in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York. At the time of the decedent's death, he and the plaintiff resided in Norwalk. After the plaintiff received payments from the fund for herself and for the child, she and the child relocated to a town in a different probate district but did not seek to transfer the probate proceedings there from the Norwalk-Wilton Probate Court. The Probate Court thereafter appointed the plaintiff as the guardian of the child's estate but did not allow her to use any of the child's award from the compensation fund for the child's support. The plaintiff did not appeal from that ruling but subsequently moved to dismiss the guardianship proceedings on the ground that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to statute (§ 45a-629 [a]) because the child no longer resided in that probate district when the proceedings began and because the child's award was paid to the plaintiff in the plaintiff's capacity as a representative payee. The Probate Court denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss, concluding that it had subject matter jurisdiction over the guardianship proceedings and because the award from the compensation fund was intended to be part of the decedent's estate. The court further concluded that it had jurisdiction over the decedent's estate because the decedent was domiciled in Norwalk at the time of his death and the child's share of the award was part of that estate. In dismissing the plaintiff's appeal to the Superior Court, that court determined that, under § 45a-629 (a), the Norwalk-Wilton Probate Court had jurisdiction to appoint the plaintiff as the guardian of the child's estate because the child was a resident of Norwalk when she first became entitled to the award. The court further determined that the child's relocation to another probate district did not deprive the Norwalk-Wilton Probate Court of continuing jurisdiction over the child's estate because the plaintiff could have sought to transfer the proceedings but did not do so. The court also concluded that payment of the award to the plaintiff in her capacity as a representative payee did not exempt the award from the statutory protection afforded to the property of minors. On appeal to this court, the plaintiff claimed, inter alia, that the Superior Court incorrectly concluded that the Probate Court had jurisdiction under § 45a-629 (a) to appoint a guardian of the child's estate.

         Held:

         1. The Superior Court correctly concluded that the Probate Court had jurisdiction to appoint a guardian of the child's estate pursuant to § 45a-629 (a) as part of its jurisdiction over the administration of the decedent's intestate estate; the statutes (§§ 45a-303 [a] [1], 45a-98 [a] [1] and [3], and 45a-132 [a] [1]) governing Probate Court jurisdiction and the authority of the Probate Court to determine property rights and to appoint guardians for minors who may have an interest in the probate proceedings provided the Probate Court with jurisdiction to appoint a guardian to protect the child's interests, the distribution of money from the compensation fund to the child, who was a beneficiary thereunder, justified the Probate Court's decision to appoint a guardian of the child's estate, and, because the decedent's estate was in the Norwalk-Wilton probate district, it had jurisdiction over that estate and an obligation to see that what was awarded to the child as the beneficiary was rightfully distributed to her under the laws of intestacy.

         2. The plaintiff could not prevail on her claim that, because only a probate court in the district in which the minor resides has jurisdiction to appoint a guardian for that minor's estate, and because the child did not reside in the Norwalk-Wilton probate district, the Norwalk-Wilton Probate Court lacked jurisdiction to appoint a guardian under § 45a-629: the award from the compensation fund for the benefit of the child was a form of property to which the child was entitled, the child was a resident of the Norwalk-Wilton probate district when her entitlement to that award occurred, the plaintiff's duty to apply for a guardianship became mandatory at the time of that occurrence, and the Probate Court in which the guardian was originally appointed retains jurisdiction to protect a minor child's interests unless and until the guardian files a motion to transfer the proceedings to another district and the transferring court finds that it is in the best interest of the child and orders the transfer; moreover, the award from the compensation fund to the plaintiff in her capacity as a representative payee did not permit her to bypass the statutory protections afforded to the child's property, and there was no indication that those protections were preempted by federal law.

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the order of the Probate Court for the district of Norwalk-Wilton denying the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the application to appoint a guardian for the estate of her minor child, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk and tried to the court, Hon. David R. Tobin, judge trial referee; judgment dismissing the appeal, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          OPINION

          FLYNN, J.

         Following the two devastating terrorist attacks on Washington and New York and a third thwarted by air passengers who died over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, Congress enacted the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 (fund) as part of the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act[1] to indemnify the surviving families of those who died or were injured in the air and on the ground that day. The appeal before us from a judgment of the Superior Court dismissing the appeal of the plaintiff, Carolyne Y. Hynes, from a decree of the Norwalk Probate Court, [2] arises out of a separate payment of $1, 271, 940.12 made from the fund to the plaintiff as ‘‘representative payee'' for the benefit of her daughter, Olivia T. Hynes. Olivia is a minor child, who was born after her father, Thomas Hynes, a business executive, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. At issue is whether the Probate Court for the district of Norwalk had jurisdiction to appoint the plaintiff as guardian of Olivia's estate and to appoint the defendant, Sharon M. Jones, as Olivia's successor guardian ad litem under the authority granted to the Probate Court under the General Statutes, despite the fact that Olivia ceased to reside in the District of Nor-walk at the time of the appointment. A second issue is whether the Probate Court lacked jurisdiction to institute the guardianship proceedings because the $1, 271, 940.12 was later paid directly to Olivia's mother from the fund as ‘‘representative payee.'' We first conclude that because Thomas Hynes was domiciled in Norwalk at the time he died intestate, our General Statutes gave the Norwalk Probate Court authority to supervise the settlement of his estate, determine its distribution, and protect the interests of his minor heir. Pursuant to General Statutes §§ 45a-303 (a), [3] 45a-98, [4]and 45a-438, [5] there were grounds to justify the Probate Court's exercise of jurisdiction as part of its supervision of the administration and distribution of Thomas Hynes' estate, and the Probate Court's and Superior Court's denials of the plaintiff's motion to dismiss. We further conclude that General Statutes §§ 45a-629 (a), [6] 45a-437, [7]and 45a-631[8] authorized appointment of a guardian because Olivia was entitled to share one half of any award of damages resulting from her father's death, and Olivia was domiciled in Norwalk at the time she became entitled to an award under the fund. Finally, we conclude that the plaintiff's later decision to receive Olivia's award in 2004 as a representative payee did not serve to exempt the $1, 271, 940.12 that the fund paid on behalf of Olivia from Connecticut's statutory protections for minors' property. We therefore conclude that the Norwalk Probate Court had such jurisdiction and affirm the judgment of the Superior Court acting as the Probate Court on appeal from probate.

         The following procedural history, factual findings from the Norwalk Probate Court proceeding, findings made by the Superior Court, and undisputed facts inform our review. The plaintiff's husband, Thomas Hynes, was killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. At the time of Thomas' death, he and the plaintiff resided together in Norwalk, a city located in the probate district of Norwalk. Their daughter, Olivia, was born a few months later on March 28, 2002. Thomas died intestate. On April 24, 2003, the plaintiff filed an application with the Probate Court for the District of Norwalk to be appointed administrator of Thomas' estate. Obtaining appointment of an administrator of Thomas' estate was a prerequisite to filing a claim with the fund. See 49 U.S.C. § 405 (c) (2) (C). The Probate Court granted the plaintiff's application, and appointed Attorney Brock T. Dubin as guardian ad litem for Olivia, who served without fee until he resigned in September, 2008. After the plaintiff was appointed administrator of Thomas' estate, she filed a claim for compensation with the fund. By letter dated June 3, 2004, Special Master Kenneth R. Feinberg[9] stated that the plaintiff's claim had been approved for a total award of $2, 425, 321.70, with the plaintiff as the ‘‘beneficiary'' of $1, 153, 381.58, and Olivia as the ‘‘beneficiary'' of the remaining $1, 271, 940.12. Feinberg's letter stated that Olivia's share of the award would be paid to the plaintiff as Olivia's ‘‘representative payee, '' and indicated to the plaintiff that, as representative payee, ‘‘you are obliged-like a trustee-to ensure that funds are used in the minor['s] best interest. You assume full responsibility for ensuring that the award[s] paid to you as representative payee are used for the minor['s] current needs or, if not currently needed, are saved for his or her future needs. This includes a duty to prudently invest funds, maintain separate accounts for [Olivia], and maintain complete records. In addition, upon reaching [eighteen] years of age . . . [Olivia is] entitled to receive the award paid to you as representative payee. Thus, at such time, you must distribute the award to [Olivia] unless [she] otherwise willingly con-sent[s].'' Olivia's funds were wired to the plaintiff's personal bank account.

         In April, 2005, the plaintiff and Olivia relocated to Weston, a town within the probate district of Westport. The plaintiff did not seek to transfer the probate proceedings from the Norwalk Probate Court. In its decree denying the plaintiff's motion to dismiss the guardianship proceedings, the Probate Court found that, in late 2006, the plaintiff filed a final accounting with the Nor-walk Probate Court showing the fund award, but that when it came to distributing to Olivia her share of the proceeds, the plaintiff ‘‘balked at the statutory requirement of the guardian of the estate of a minor or the suggestion that the fund proceeds go into a trust for the benefit of the minor.'' The Probate Court further found that the plaintiff ‘‘remain[ed] steadfast in her contention that the money awarded to [Olivia] was to be used at the [plaintiff's] discretion, contending that it was given to her individually and/or as representative payee for [Olivia], but in either event, subject neither to the jurisdiction of this court nor the statutes of this state.'' The Probate Court further found that, ‘‘[a]cting in accordance with [this] belief, [the plaintiff] placed all of the proceeds from the fund in one account, in direct violation of the federal mandate, which calls for representative payees to ‘prudently invest funds, maintain separate accounts, and maintain complete records.' '' The Probate Court further found that ‘‘[f]rom this co-mingled account, the [plaintiff] withdrew money to purchase a home for approximately $884, 000 and spent an additional $150, 000 in renovations.''

         On July 31, 2008, the Norwalk Probate Court appointed the defendant as Olivia's successor guardian ad litem in the estate administration proceedings. The Probate Court found that, in 2009, ‘‘at the court's insistence, the [plaintiff] placed the funds intended for [Olivia] in a separate account, after which the court was able to observe that approximately $385, 000 of [Olivia's] funds had been expended in her first seven years. Prudently, the court ordered the [plaintiff] to account.'' While the Probate Court was able to make certain findings as to where some of the monies went, it went on to find that ‘‘[a] more detailed analysis of how this $385, 000 was spent remains doubtful, as the [plaintiff] refused, neglected or otherwise failed to keep or produce any accounting records. Nevertheless, the sums before us establish that not only had the money been co-mingled, but that it was being spent at an alarming rate and for purposes most of which are the [plaintiff's] obligations. Further aggravating the issue were the thousands of dollars apparently being lost on exorbitant management fees and market losses. These factors require the court to act before the remaining principal quickly disappears.''

         On June 9, 2010, the plaintiff filed an application to be appointed guardian of the estate for Olivia, which the Norwalk Probate Court granted. After granting the application, however, the Probate Court refused to allow the plaintiff to utilize Olivia's funds to pay for certain expenses. The Probate Court reasoned that, while the expenses benefited Olivia, her assets should not be used for her support because the plaintiff was already legally obligated to support her. The plaintiff took issue with the Probate Court's reasoning that none of Olivia's award from the fund could be used for her support, but did not appeal from that decree.

         Although General Statutes § 45a-186 (a) permits appeal to Superior Court from any ‘‘order, denial or decree'' of a court of probate, the plaintiff took no appeal from that ruling of the Probate Court, which might have resolved the issue of whether the fund award to Olivia could have properly been used for the child's support. However, even if it were determined that it could be so utilized, on appeal it might not have resolved the issue of whether the Probate Court had jurisdiction to monitor these expenditures to ensure that the child's award was not used for expenditures that misused or misspent the funds. The plaintiff's position was that Olivia's award from the fund specifically provided that the award could be used for the child's current needs and that she did not need to deplete her personal funds to satisfy the current needs of her child, and that the Probate Court had no continuing jurisdiction to require her to account for how the funds were expended.

         Instead, on August 21, 2013, the plaintiff moved to dismiss the guardianship proceedings, asserting that the Norwalk Probate Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the guardianship proceedings under § 45a-629 (a) because Olivia no longer resided in that district when the proceedings began. Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that no Connecticut Probate Court had jurisdiction to institute guardianship proceedings because Olivia's share of the fund award was paid to the plaintiff as Olivia's ‘‘representative payee, '' placing the funds ‘‘beyond our state's control or supervision.'' It is clear from the record provided to us that the plaintiff moved to dismiss her own appointment as guardian of Olivia's estate. However, if some of the plaintiff's contentions were accepted, it is also clear that the Norwalk Probate Court also would lack authority to appoint a guardian ad litem.

         The Probate Court found the issues at hand to be whether (1) the court ‘‘lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the guardianship proceeding under . . . General Statutes § 45a-629 because [Olivia] no longer resides in the district, '' and (2) whether ‘‘a guardianship is not appropriate in any Connecticut Probate Court because the payment from the fund was to the [plaintiff] as the [Olivia's] ‘representative payee, ' placing it beyond our state's control or supervision.''

         In the Probate Court proceeding, the defendant objected to the motion to dismiss, argued that the court has jurisdiction, and that Connecticut statutes such as § 45a-629 are directed to venue rather than jurisdiction. She further argued that nothing in the federal statute creating the fund was intended to preempt state law.

         The Norwalk Probate Court denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss in a decree dated June 3, 2014. Rather than addressing the plaintiff's statutory argument regarding § 45a-629 (a), the Norwalk Probate Court determined that it had subject matter jurisdiction over the guardianship proceedings because an award by the fund was intended to be a substitute for a wrongful death claim and was therefore part of Thomas' estate. The Norwalk Probate Court reasoned that it had jurisdiction over Thomas' estate because Thomas was domiciled in Norwalk at the time of his death on September 11, 2001, and Olivia's share in the award was part of that estate. Therefore, noting that General Statutes § 45a-631 provides that minors who receive ...


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