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In re Estate of Edmonds

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

May 30, 2019

IN RE ESTATE OF DANTÉ LAMAR EDMONDS

          Session April 10, 2019

          Appeal from the Probate Court for Shelby County No. PR-10785 Karen D. Webster, Judge

         Initially, Decedent's Mother was appointed personal representative of Decedent's estate without notice to Decedent's spouse or minor child. Spouse promptly filed a petition to remove Decedent's mother as personal representative. The trial court granted the petition and named the guardian ad litem of the child as personal representative of the estate. Discerning no error, we affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Probate Court Affirmed

          Chastity Sharp Grice, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Sherry Jones.

          Edward T. Autry and Steven N. Snyder, Jr., Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Hannah E. Bleavins.

          J. Steven Stafford, P. J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Arnold B. Goldin and Kenny Armstrong, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Background

         This is a dispute regarding the proper administrator of an estate between Appellant Sherry Jones and Appellee Hannah E. Bleavins ("GAL Bleavins"), Successor Personal Representative of the Estate of Danté Lamar Edmonds ("Decedent"). Decedent passed away on February 21, 2018.[1] Decedent's funeral occurred on or about March 3, 2018. On March 6, 2018, Decedent's mother, Ms. Jones, filed a verified petition to open Decedent's estate and to be named as the estate's personal representative. The petition noted that Decedent died intestate. Among the assets listed in Decedent's estate were limited personal property and a wrongful death cause of action.

         The petition further alleged that Decedent had two heirs, a wife, Raven Edmonds, and a minor daughter, Kylie Edmonds ("Daughter"). Ms. Jones asked to be named personal representative of the estate "[f]or want of application by the spouse[.]" The petition noted, however, that no notice had been sent to these heirs "consistent with the provisions of" Tennessee Code Annotated section 30-1-117(b)[2] and that Ms. Jones was proceeding pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-5-106(c)(3).[3] Moreover, the petition alleged that Decedent and Mrs. Edmonds had been separated for a period of more than two years and that there was good cause to excuse notifying Mrs. Edmonds.

         On March 7, 2018, the Shelby County Probate Court ("the trial court")[4] entered an order opening Decedent's estate and naming Ms. Jones as personal representative, finding that Ms. Jones is "a person entitled to serve as Personal Representative under" Tennessee Code Annotated section 30-1-106.[5]

         On March 16, 2018, Mrs. Edmonds, both on her own behalf and as the legal and natural guardian of Daughter, filed a verified petition to remove Ms. Jones as personal representative of the estate. Mrs. Edmonds alleged that despite attending Decedent's funeral three days prior to filing her petition, Ms. Jones provided Mrs. Edmonds and Daughter with no formal or informal notice of her intent to open Decedent's estate. In addition, Mrs. Edmonds alleged that Ms. Jones was not qualified to serve as personal representative because (1) Mrs. Edmonds, as Decedent's spouse, had priority under section 30-1-106 to seek administration of the estate (2) there had been insufficient time to determine if there was "want of application . . . upon the part of the spouse" so that administration could fall to next of kin; (3) under intestacy rules, Ms. Jones was simply not "next of kin" qualified to administer the estate under section 30-1-106; (4) Ms. Jones failed to notify Mrs. Edmonds of her intent to open the estate pursuant to local rules; and (5) in seeking this action without notice, Ms. Jones was acting in a "hostile" and "deceitful" manner.

         Ms. Jones filed a response to the petition to remove her as personal representative, generally denying that she had acted inappropriately in her petition to open the estate or in being named personal representative. A hearing was held on June 28, 2018.[6] No evidence was presented as the parties asserted that the matter was a purely legal issue. Counsel for Mrs. Edmonds noted without dispute that in the interim between the filing of the verified petition to remove Ms. Jones and the hearing, a guardianship had been opened for Daughter in the trial court in a separate proceeding; GAL Bleavins had been named the child's guardian ad litem.[7] According to counsel, the order of guardianship had become final. During the hearing, Ms. Jones argued that the proper focus was not whether another party had a statutory preference to serve as administrator under section 30-1-106, but whether she could be removed as administrator pursuant to the statutes concerning that issue, particularly Tennessee Code Annotated section 35-15-706. Because she committed no wrongdoing in the administration of the estate, Ms. Jones argued that removal was not authorized.

         The trial court entered an order on July 9, 2018, removing Ms. Jones as personal representative. Therein, the trial court noted that Mrs. Edmonds had a statutory preference to serve as personal representative and that GAL Bleavins, on behalf of Daughter, was next in line in the event that Mrs. Edmonds declined to serve. The trial court also noted that Mrs. Edmonds had asked that GAL Bleavins serve as personal representative in her capacity as guardian ad litem of Daughter. GAL Bleavins was therefore appointed as personal representative. The trial court also ruled that Ms. Jones would be required to file a full accounting. The trial court certified its order as final pursuant to Rule 54.02 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.

         The trial court later denied Ms. Jones's motion to reconsider by order of September 12, 2018. Therein, the trial court specifically addressed Ms. Jones's argument that she could only be removed under section 35-15-706. Even crediting this argument, the trial court found that removal was appropriate under that statute because (1) Ms. Jones committed a serious breach of trust in rushing to the court house to seek administration of the estate without providing any notice to Mrs. Edmonds; and (2) removal was requested by all beneficiaries. Both of these situations, the trial court ruled, authorized removal under section 35-15-706. Again, the trial court designated its order as final and appealable. A notice of appeal was filed on September 28, 2018.

         Issues Presented

         Ms. Jones raises two issues on appeal, which are taken and slightly restated from her appellate brief:

1. Whether Tennessee Code Annotated § 30-1-106 authorizes a Probate Court to remove a duly appointed Personal Representative without cause, as is required by Tennessee Code Annotated § 30-1-151.
2. Whether the trial abused its discretion when it appointed the attorney for the mother, who is also the guardian of the estate of the decedent's minor child, after being made aware of the inherent conflict.

         In the posture of appellee, GAL Bleavins seeks an award of attorney's fees and costs incurred in this appeal.

         Standard of Review

         Rule 13 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure provides that a trial court's findings of fact are reviewed "de novo upon the record of the trial court, accompanied by a presumption of the correctness of the finding, unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise." Tenn. R. App. P. 13(d). A trial court's conclusions of law, however, are not entitled to a presumption of correctness. Johnson v. Johnson, 37 S.W.3d ...


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