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In re Estate of Ernest Lester Salmons

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

March 14, 2018

In re ESTATE OF ERNEST LESTER SALMONS

          Session October 19, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Anderson County No. 17-PB-3 M. Nichole Cantrell, Chancellor

         This appeal presents the issue of whether a trial court may properly transfer a probate proceeding that was allegedly filed in the wrong county to the county where the decedent was residing when he passed away. The administratrix of the probate estate was appointed by the Campbell County Chancery Court upon the filing of a verified petition alleging that the decedent died in Lake City, Tennessee. A defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit, subsequently filed by the administratrix regarding the death of the decedent, filed a motion in the Campbell County Chancery Court, seeking to have the previously issued letters of administration revoked because the decedent was residing in a nursing facility in Anderson County at the time of his death. Rather than revoking the letters of administration, the Campbell County Chancery Court transferred the probate matter to Anderson County. Subsequently, the Anderson County Chancery Court denied a similar motion, stating that it had no jurisdiction to revoke letters of administration issued by the Campbell County Chancery Court. The movant has appealed. Discerning no error, we affirm the Campbell County Court's order transferring the probate action to Anderson County.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          James N. L. Humphreys and Matthew F. Bettis, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellant, Summit View of Lake City, LLC.

          Loring Justice, B. Chadwick Rickman, and Linn Guerrero, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Paulette Salmons, as adminstrator of the Estate of Ernest Lester Salmons.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and John W. McClarty, J., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Ernest Salmons ("Decedent") died on October 13, 2013, at Summit View of Lake City, LLC ("Summit"), which is a skilled nursing facility located in Anderson County. On November 25, 2013, Decedent's sibling, Paulette Salmons, a resident of Jacksboro, Tennessee, filed a petition in the Campbell County Chancery Court, requesting that she be appointed personal representative of Decedent's estate ("the Estate"). In the petition, Ms. Salmons stated that Decedent died intestate in Lake City, Tennessee, but failed to list his specific place of residence. The Campbell County Chancery Court appointed Ms. Salmons as administratrix of the Estate on November 25, 2013. In that order, the Campbell County Chancery Court recited that Decedent was a resident of Campbell County at the time of his death.

         In 2015, Ms. Salmons filed a complaint against Summit in the Anderson County Circuit Court on behalf of the Estate. In said action, the Estate alleged that, inter alia, Summit was liable for the wrongful death of Decedent due to medical negligence. Subsequently, on September 26, 2016, Summit filed a motion in the Campbell County Chancery Court, seeking to have that court's order appointing Ms. Salmons administratrix of the Estate declared void ab initio. Summit asserted that in the health care liability complaint filed on behalf of the Estate, Ms. Salmons had stated that Decedent was residing at Summit in Anderson County at the time of his death. Summit thus posited that the Campbell County Chancery Court lacked jurisdiction to grant letters of administration regarding the Estate pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 30-1-102 (2015), which states that letters of administration "shall be granted by the probate court of the county where the intestate had usual residence at the time of the intestate's death, or, in case the intestate had fixed places of residence in more than one county, the probate court of either county may grant letters of administration . . . ."

         The Estate filed a response to Summit's motion, alleging that (1) Summit lacked standing to set aside the letters of administration and (2) Summit could not demonstrate that Decedent intended to change his domicile to Anderson County. The Estate further argued that the proper resolution of any issue with the Campbell County Chancery Court's jurisdiction would be to transfer the matter to Anderson County pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 16-1-116.[1]

         The Campbell County Chancery Court conducted a hearing regarding Summit's motion on December 16, 2016. Subsequently, on January 25, 2017, the Campbell County Chancery Court entered an order denying Summit's motion to have the appointment order declared void ab initio. The court determined that the November 25, 2013 order and the resultant letters of administration were not void. The court transferred the Estate matter to the Anderson County Chancery Court pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 16-1-116.

         On January 31, 2017, Summit filed a motion in the Anderson County Chancery Court, seeking to alter or amend the January 25, 2017 order of the Campbell County Court. On February 13, 2017, the Anderson County Chancery Court entered an order stating, inter alia, "[t]his Court refuses to enter an order as requested by the movant finding that Anderson County Chancery Court, probate division, has no jurisdiction to enter any order dealing [with] the revocation of Appointment of an Administrator or Revocation of Letters of Administration that were issued by another county." Summit timely filed a notice of appeal pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 3. Summit concomitantly filed a motion for interlocutory appeal pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 9, acknowledging that the most recent order might not be considered final. This Court denied interlocutory review pursuant to Rule 9, determining that "the orders on review in the probate appeals are appealable as of right." This appeal as of right followed. See Tenn. R. App. P. 3.

         II. Issues Presented

         Summit presents two issues for our review, which we have restated slightly:

1. Whether the Campbell County Chancery Court possessed subject matter jurisdiction to enter an order appointing Ms. Salmons as administratrix of Decedent's estate.
2. Whether the Campbell County Chancery Court's order appointing Ms. Salmons as administratrix of Decedent's estate is void.

         Ms. Salmons, on behalf of the Estate, raises the following additional issues, which we have also restated slightly:

3. Whether Summit maintained standing to challenge Ms. Salmons's appointment as administratrix of the Estate.
4. Whether the Campbell County Chancery Court properly disposed of Summit's challenge by transferring the case to Anderson County.
5. Whether the letters of administration issued to Ms. Salmons were merely voidable rather than void.
6. Whether Summit's challenge of the trial court's appointment has been waived for failure to properly comply with statutory requirements.

         III. Standard of Review

         Questions of law, including issues of statutory construction, are reviewed de novo with no presumption of correctness attaching to the rulings of the court below. See Carter v. Bell, 279 S.W.3d 560, 564 (Tenn. 2009); Blair v. Brownson, 197 S.W.3d 681, 683 (Tenn. 2006). As our Supreme Court has explained concerning statutory construction:

The most basic principle of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to legislative intent without broadening the statute beyond its intended scope. When statutory language is clear and unambiguous, we must apply its plain meaning in its normal and accepted use, without a forced interpretation that would extend the meaning of the language and, in that instance, we enforce the ...

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