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Hynes v. Jones

Supreme Court of Connecticut

April 16, 2019

CAROLYNE Y. HYNES
v.
SHARON M. JONES

          Argued September 17, 2018

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the order of the Probate Court for the district of Norwalk-Wilton denying the plaintiff's appli- cation to dismiss guardianship proceedings with respect to 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 the Appellate Court, Sheldon, Beach and Flynn, Js., which affirmed the trial court's judgment, and the plaintiff, on the granting of certification, appealed to this court. Reversed; judgment directed.

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

          Robinson, C. J., and Palmer, McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn and Ecker, Js.

          OPINION

          ROBINSON, C. J.

         The dispositive issue in this certified appeal is whether the Probate Court has jurisdiction to approve or monitor use of a September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (fund) award that had been paid to a surviving spouse as a ‘‘representative payee'' for the benefit of her minor child. The plaintiff, Carolyne Y. Hynes, appeals, upon our grant of her petition for certification, [1] from the judgment of the Appellate Court affirming the judgment of the trial court dismissing her appeal from the decree of the Probate Court. Hynes v. Jones, 175 Conn.App. 80, 82-85, 167 A.3d 375 (2017). On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the Probate Court lacks jurisdiction over a fund award paid to the plaintiff as a ‘‘representative payee'' because that award is neither (1) the property of the estate of her late husband, the decedent Thomas Hynes, within the meaning of General Statutes § 45a-98 (a), [2] nor (2) the property of their daughter, Olivia T. Hynes, within the meaning of General Statutes § 45a-629 (a), [3] which governs property to which a minor child is ‘‘entitled, '' or General Statutes § 45a-631 (a), [4] which governs property ‘‘belonging to'' a minor. We agree with the plaintiff and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

         The following factual and procedural history informs our review. The decedent was killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and died intestate. The plaintiff and the decedent resided in the city of Norwalk at the time of his death. On March 28, 2002, the plaintiff gave birth to their daughter, Olivia.[5] On April 24, 2003, the plaintiff filed an application with the Probate Court seeking appointment as the administrator of the decedent's estate. The Probate Court granted the application and appointed Attorney Brock T. Dubin as guardian ad litem for the minor child.

         After her appointment as administrator of the decedent's estate, the plaintiff filed a claim for compensation from the fund. By letter to the plaintiff, dated June 3, 2004, the fund's special master, Kenneth R. Feinberg, [6]authorized a total award of $2, 425, 321.70. Specifically, the plaintiff was awarded $1, 153, 381.58 as a ‘‘[b]eneficiary, '' and the minor child was awarded $1, 271, 940.12 as a ‘‘[b]eneficiary.'' The award letter stated that the plaintiff had elected to receive benefits directly on behalf of the minor child as a ‘‘ ‘representative payee.' '' The letter subsequently identified the plaintiff as the ‘‘payee'' a second time, and stated that she was to be paid $1, 271, 940.12 ‘‘on behalf of'' the minor child. The letter then elaborated on the representative payee's obligations as follows: ‘‘As you know, as a 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] paid to you as representative payee [is] used for the [minor's] current needs or, if not currently needed . . . saved for his or her future needs. This includes a duty to prudently invest funds, maintain separate accounts for each minor, and maintain complete records. In addition, upon reaching [eighteen] years of age (or age of majority as recognized by state law), the [minor is] entitled to receive the award paid to you as representative payee. Thus, at such time, you must distribute the award to the [minor] unless the [minor] otherwise willingly [consents].''

         On July 31, 2008, the Probate Court appointed the defendant, Sharon M. Jones, as successor guardian ad litem for the minor child in the estate administration proceedings. Thereafter, the Probate Court insisted that the minor child's share of the benefits from the fund be placed into a guardianship account. On June 9, 2010, in compliance with the Probate Court's wishes, the plaintiff filed an application to be appointed guardian of the minor child's estate. The Probate Court granted the application but thereafter refused to allow the plaintiff to utilize the funds held in the guardianship account to pay for certain expenses. The plaintiff argued that the expenses were principally for the benefit of the minor child, but the Probate Court, reasoning that the plaintiff had a common-law duty to support the minor child as long as she possessed the resources to do so, concluded that the minor child's assets should not be used for such expenses.

         The plaintiff did not appeal from that decree of the Probate Court. Instead, on August 21, 2013, she moved to dismiss the guardianship proceedings, claiming a lack of jurisdiction. On June 3, 2014, the Probate Court denied the plaintiff's motion to dismiss. Specifically, the Probate Court determined that it had subject matter jurisdiction over the guardianship proceedings, reasoning that an award from the fund was a substitute for a wrongful death claim and was, therefore, part of the decedent's estate.[7]

         The plaintiff then appealed from the Probate Court decree to the trial court. Pursuant to General Statutes § 45a-186 (a), the trial court heard the matter de novo because no recording had been made of the Probate Court proceedings. The trial court subsequently issued a memorandum of decision dismissing the probate appeal. In reaching this conclusion, the trial court construed the text of § 45a-629 (a), along with other relevant statutes, and determined, inter alia, that jurisdiction to appoint a guardian of the estate of a minor child is conferred upon the Probate Court for the district in which the minor resides at the time the minor first becomes entitled to property. The trial court concluded that the plaintiff's election to have the fund make payment to the plaintiff directly as representative payee did not exempt the award from the statutory protections afforded to the property of minors. Accordingly, the trial court rendered judgment dismissing the plain- tiff's probate appeal.

         The plaintiff appealed from the judgment of the trial court to the Appellate Court. The Appellate Court agreed with the Probate Court that an award from the fund was a substitute for a wrongful death claim and consequently was part of the decedent's estate. Hynes v. Jones, supra, 175 Conn.App. 92. The Appellate Court reasoned that, because the decedent died while domiciled in Norwalk, the court of probate in that district had jurisdiction to appoint a guardian ad litem to protect the minor child's interests in the decedent's estate. Id. The Appellate Court also concluded that the Probate Court had jurisdiction because the minor child became entitled to property within the meaning of § 45a-629 (a) while she was domiciled in that probate district. Id. Accordingly, the Appellate Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Id., 105. This certified appeal fol-lowed.[8] See footnote 1 of this opinion.

         On appeal to this court, the plaintiff argues that an award from the fund, when paid directly to a surviving spouse as a ‘‘representative payee'' in exchange for that spouse's agreement to use the award to pay for the child's current needs, is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Probate Court. The plaintiff claims that the fund award was paid to her as a representative payee for her minor child, not as a representative of her husband's estate, and that the fund never intended that awards paid to representative payees would be subject to the jurisdiction of the various states' probate courts. The plaintiff asserts that § 45a-629 (a) only authorizes the appointment of a guardian for a minor ‘‘when a minor is entitled to property, '' and that the minor child was not entitled to property because the fund award was paid directly to the plaintiff. The plaintiff argues that, under § 45a-98, the Probate Court's jurisdiction is limited to property that comprises, or may comprise, part of a decedent's estate, and that the fund award is not part of the decedent's estate. The plaintiff also claims that § 45a-631 (a), which requires that a parent not receive or use any property belonging to the minor child in an amount more than ten thousand dollars without first being appointed guardian of the minor's estate, is inapplicable given that the fund award did not constitute property belonging to the minor child.

         We agree with the plaintiff that the Probate Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to appoint a guardian of the minor child's estate. Specifically, we first conclude that a fund award paid to the plaintiff as a ‘‘representative payee'' did not constitute a part of the decedent's estate. We further conclude that the award does not constitute property to which the minor child is ‘‘entitled'' under § 45a-629 (a), and does not constitute property ‘‘belonging'' to the minor child under § 45a-631 (a).

         Courts of probate ‘‘are statutory tribunals that have no common-law jurisdiction. . . . Accordingly, [these courts] can exercise only such powers as are conferred on them by statute. . . . They have jurisdiction only when the facts exist on which the legislature has conditioned the exercise of their power. . . . [A] court [that] exercises a limited and statutory jurisdiction is without jurisdiction to act unless it does so under the precise circumstances and in the manner particularly prescribed by the enabling legislation.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Connery v.Gieske, 323 Conn. 377, 388, 147 A.3d 94 (2016). The question in this case is whether any existing statute grants the Probate Court authority to exercise jurisdiction over the fund award paid to the plaintiff in her capacity as representative payee for her minor child. Thus, whether the ...


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