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In re Estate of Vaughn

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

August 14, 2019

IN RE ESTATE OF RICKIE CHARLES VAUGHN

          Session June 20, 2019

          Appeal from the Probate Court for Shelby County No. D-14407-1 Kathleen N. Gomes, Judge

         An alleged child of the decedent sought to establish paternity and thereby inherit through intestate succession. The probate court concluded that the child should be excluded as an heir as a result of his failure to timely assert a claim. We affirm.

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

          Laura L. Deakins and Michael E. Kenney, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Nolan Michael DeSoto.

          Lynn W. Thompson, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellees, Tangie Sue Phillips, Robert Earl Vaughn, Zenobia Ruth Vaughn, and Marjorie Ann Vaughn.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined.

          OPINION

          ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Rickie Charles Vaughn ("the Decedent") died intestate on July 11, 2012. At the time of his death, the Decedent was not married and had no known children. The Decedent was survived by six siblings: Dickie Vaughn, Robert Earl Vaughn, Marjorie[1]Ann Vaughn, Zenobia Ruth Vaughn, Tangie Sue Phillips, and Babe Renee Bordelon. Dickie was appointed Administrator of the Decedent's estate on July 18, 2012, and on August 27, 2012, Babe filed a disclaimer to any interest in the Decedent's estate. Robert, Marjorie, Zenobia, and Tangie are the participating Appellees herein.

         As is pertinent to this appeal, Dickie filed a pleading in his capacity as Administrator on September 19, 2013 entitled "Administrator's Petition to Determine Heirship," that alleged that the Decedent had a putative son, Nolan Michael Desoto ("Mr. Desoto"). It is not disputed that Mr. Desoto was identified by DNA testing, with a 94.4% degree of certainty, to be the biological son of the Decedent. The record reflects that Mr. Desoto was on active duty with the U.S. Navy from November 19, 2012 until he was discharged on April 1, 2014. The record further reflects that Mr. Desoto was the subject of two previous adoptions, but that these adoptions had been vacated by a Mississippi court in July 2017.

         On January 6, 2015, the Appellees filed a motion for summary judgment on the question of Mr. Desoto's heirship, and approximately two months later, Mr. Desoto submitted a letter with the court asking for direction on how to obtain an attorney. On April 8, 2015, counsel for Mr. Desoto filed a notice of appearance in the probate court but made no other filing.

         On July 12, 2017, the Appellees filed a second motion for summary judgment. Through that motion and its accompanying papers, the Appellees specifically asserted that Mr. Desoto could not assert heirship because he had not done so within one year of the Decedent's death. On August 11, 2017, Mr. Desoto filed a response in opposition to the Appellees' July 12 motion. In a supplemental filing later submitted on November 20, 2017, Mr. Desoto argued that his military service from November 19, 2012 to April 1, 2014, and the corresponding authority of 50 U.S.C. § 3936(a), [2] tolled the applicable statute of limitations for asserting a claim to the Decedent's estate. Given the benefit of this tolling, he argued that the statute of limitations for his claim did not run until November 21, 2014. According to Mr. Desoto, he had timely asserted a claim through the "Administrator's Petition to Determine Heirship," which was filed on September 19, 2013. Although that petition had clearly been filed by the Administrator, not Mr. Desoto, Mr. Desoto submitted that his claim to the Decedent's estate had been made "by and through" the Administrator and the lawyers representing the Administrator.

         By order entered on March 13, 2018, the probate court granted the Appellees' second motion for summary judgment. The court held that it did "not believe that the Administrator of an estate can assert someone else's claim to an estate" and further held that because Mr. Desoto had not timely asserted his claim, he was thereby "excluded as an heir." Within thirty days of the court's March 13 order, on April 12, 2018, Mr. Desoto filed a "Motion to Revise, and Alternatively, Motion for Permission to Seek Interlocutory Appeal and for Stay of Proceedings." The motion averred that the probate court had erred in its legal conclusion and requested that the court's ruling be revised. The probate court ultimately denied Mr. Desoto's April 12 motion on August 24, 2018, and on September 4, 2018, Mr. Desoto filed a notice of appeal.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         Although the Appellees raise as a preliminary issue whether this Court has subject matter jurisdiction to consider this appeal, Mr. Desoto only raises one substantive issue for our consideration: Whether the Probate Court erred in determining that, as a matter of law, the "Administrator's Petition to Determine Heirship" could not assert Mr. Desoto's interest in the estate because it was filed by an Administrator?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         At issue on appeal is the probate court's March 13, 2018 order granting summary judgment. As this inquiry involves "purely a question of law," Staples v. CBL & Assocs., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 83, 88 (Tenn. 2000), our standard of review is de novo, and we afford no presumption of correctness to the probate court's determination. Maggart v. Almany Realtors, Inc., 259 S.W.3d 700, 703 (Tenn. 2008) (citations omitted). A motion for summary judgment should only be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04.

         DISCUSSION

         Although Mr. Desoto attempts to appeal the probate court's decision excluding him as an heir, the Appellees have raised as an issue that this Court is without subject matter jurisdiction based on the alleged untimeliness of Mr. Desoto's notice of appeal. The Appellees' position is based on the argument that the March 13, 2018 order of summary judgment was final and appealable and that the April 12, 2018 motion to "revise" did not extend the time for filing a notice of appeal. This issue must be addressed as a threshold consideration before we can proceed any further.

         Subject matter jurisdiction relates to the authority of a court to hear a matter. Meighan v. U.S. Sprint Commc'ns Co., 924 S.W.2d 632, 639 (Tenn. 1996). It cannot be conferred by appearance, plea, consent, silence, or waiver, Dishmon v. Shelby State Cmty. Coll., 15 S.W.3d 477, 480 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999), and as such, we are required to determine the question as an initial concern regardless of whether it was raised. See Tenn. R. App. P. 13(b).

         Because the jurisdictional question involved here asks whether the appeal was timely filed, we turn to Rule 4(a) of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, which contains a "mandatory and jurisdictional" time limit for filing a notice of appeal in civil cases. Albert v. Frye, 145 S.W.3d 526, 528 (Tenn. 2004). Pursuant to that rule, "In an appeal as of right to the . . . Court of Appeals . . . the notice of appeal required by Rule 3 shall be filed with the clerk of the appellate court within 30 days after the date of entry of the judgment appealed from." Tenn. R. App. P. 4(a). It should be noted, however, that another mechanism exists in the appellate rules to extend the time period for filing a notice of appeal. Specifically, pursuant to Rule 4(b), the following is provided:

In a civil action, if a timely motion under the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure is filed in the trial court by any party: (1) under Rule 50.02 for judgment in accordance with a motion for a directed verdict; (2) under Rule 52.02 to amend or make additional findings of fact, whether or not an alteration of the judgment would be required if the motion is granted; (3) under Rule 59.07 for a new trial; (4) under Rule 59.04 to alter or amend the judgment; the time for appeal for all parties shall run from the entry of the order denying a new trial or granting or denying any other such motion.

Tenn. R. App. P. 4(b).

         The timeliness of the appeal in this case requires us to consider two questions that have been the subject of dispute. First, was the probate court's March 13, 2018 order appealable so as to trigger the running of the time period for filing a notice of appeal under Rule 4(a)? If so, did Mr. Desoto's April 12, 2018 motion extend the time period for filing a notice of appeal? We turn first to the matter of the March 13, 2018 order. Pursuant to Rule 3(a) of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, "every final judgment entered by a trial court from which an appeal lies to the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals is appealable as of right." Tenn. R. App. P. 3(a). Therefore, if the March 13 order represented a final judgment, it was appealable as of right. The controversy here surrounds the initial determination of finality.

         Probate proceedings such as the present one "frequently contain multiple intermediate orders that are final with respect to discrete issues." In re Estate of McCants, No. E2017-02327-COA-R3-CV, 2018 WL 3217697, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 2, 2018). Indeed,

an order is appealable in many instances notwithstanding the fact that the probate case has not definitively concluded. For example, when a claim filed against the estate is tried and resolved, "[a] party dissatisfied with the outcome of a trial regarding a disputed claim must file a timely appeal without waiting for a final order closing the probate proceeding." In re Estate of Trigg, 368 S.W.3d 483, 497 (Tenn. 2012) (citation omitted).

Id. As we further elaborated in an opinion issued last year:

[C]laims against an estate . . . may be finally resolved prior to the final order resolving all of the outstanding issues in an estate matter. According to the Tennessee Supreme Court, "[a] party dissatisfied with the outcome of a trial regarding a disputed claim must file a timely appeal without waiting for a final order closing the probate proceeding." In re Estate of Trigg, 368 S.W.3d 483, 497 (Tenn. 2012) (citing Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 30-2-315(a)(2), (c) (stating that when an exception to a claim is filed, the trial court should promptly "hear and determine all issues arising upon all the exceptions" and that "[a] judgment upon the findings of the court shall be entered in the court and from the judgment an appeal may be perfected within thirty (30) days from the date of entry of the judgment")). The Tennessee Supreme Court has recognized a similar rule applicable to claims in which no exception has been filed, explaining that "claims unexcepted to become the equivalent of judgments against the estate excepting of course that the right to an execution thereon does not follow" and the issue of the claim is immediately appealed as a final order, rather than an interlocutory order. Warfield v. Thomas' Estate, 185 Tenn. 328, 334-35, 206 S.W.2d 372, 375 (Tenn. 1947) (quoting Higgins' Administration of Estates in Tennessee, § 126(a), p. 97) ("[T]his claim was final in that it was unexcepted to within the time allowed by law, and there was nothing to be adjudicated"); see also Needham v. Moore, 200 Tenn. 445, 451, 292 S.W.2d 720, 723 (1956) ("When the time for filing exceptions has passed, the uncontested claim becomes final against the estate.").

In re Estate of Meadows, No. M2017-01062-COA-R3-CV, 2018 WL 1920378, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 24, 2018). Under the holding of In re Estate of Trigg and its progeny, when the probate court adjudicates a claim against an estate, the aggrieved party "must file a timely appeal without waiting for a final order closing the probate proceeding." In re Estate of Trigg, 368 S.W.3d at 497 (emphasis added).

         In this case, it is acknowledged that Mr. Desoto is "a child born out of wedlock, whose paternity was not adjudicated prior to the death of the father." Bilbrey v. Smithers, 937 S.W.2d 803, 808 (Tenn. 1996). In Bilbrey, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that if a child's paternity was not adjudicated prior to the father's death, then that child could "establish the right to inherit by intestate succession by asserting that right against the estate of the deceased owner of the property in which an interest is claimed within the time allowed for creditors to file claims against the estate and by establishing paternity by clear and convincing proof." Id. With this in mind, it is evident that an assertion of heirship to inherit by intestate succession is properly classified as a "claim" against the estate. By excluding Mr. Desoto as an heir through its March 13, 2018 order, the probate court denied a claim of heirship. Under the previously-cited authority, specifically the referenced holding from In re Estate of Trigg, the March 13 order was final and appealable when the probate court adjudicated that claim.

         With the finality question addressed, we now consider whether Mr. Desoto's April 12, 2018 motion extended the time for filing a notice of appeal. As previously noted, certain post-trial motions, including motions to alter or amend, toll the commencement of the time for an appeal. See Tenn. R. App. P. 4(b). It is clear that the filing of any post-trial motion will not suffice, as echoed by Rule 59.01 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides as follows:

Motions to which this rule is applicable are: (1) under Rule 50.02 for judgment in accordance with a motion for a directed verdict; (2) under Rule 52.02 to amend or make additional findings of fact, whether or not an alteration of the judgment would be required if the motion is granted; (3) under Rule 59.07 for a new trial; or (4) under Rule 59.04 to alter or amend the judgment. These motions are the only motions contemplated in these rules for extending the time for taking steps in the regular appellate process. Motions to reconsider any of these motions are not authorized and will not operate to extend the time for appellate proceedings.

Tenn. R. Civ. P. 59.01 (emphasis added).

         Although Mr. Desoto's April 12, 2018 motion was styled as a "Motion to Revise, and Alternatively, Motion for Permission to Seek Interlocutory Appeal and for Stay of Proceedings," we do not merely look to the heading to see whether it constitutes the type of motion that would effectively extend the time for an appeal. Rather, this Court is to consider the substance of the motion. See Goetz v. Autin, No. W2015-00063-COA-R3-CV, 2016 WL 537818, at *5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 10, 2016) (noting that courts "must parse through the body of the motion to determine whether it requests the sort of relief available through one of the four motions specified in the procedural rules"). As the Tennessee Supreme Court has cautioned:

Requiring courts to consider the substance of a post-trial motion, rather than its form, is consistent with the rules of civil procedure. Rule 8.05, Tenn. R. Civ. P., explicitly states that "[n]o technical forms of pleading or motions are required." (Emphasis added.) Moreover, allowing the form of a motion to control its substance could result in the dismissal of many appeals and would, in turn, defeat the mandate of Rule 1, Tenn. R. App. P., which instructs that the rules of appellate procedure are to be "construed to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every proceeding on its merits." Accordingly, we hold that when determining whether a post-trial motion is one of those designated by the rules of civil and appellate procedure as tolling commencement of the time for filing a notice of appeal, courts must consider the substance of the motion, rather than its form.

Tenn. Farmers Mut. Ins. Co. v. Farmer, 970 S.W.2d 453, 455 (Tenn. 1998).

         The substance of Mr. Desoto's April 12 motion largely called for the probate court to "revise" its March 13, 2018 order for the purpose of correcting an alleged legal error.[3]Specifically, whereas the probate court's order excluded Mr. Desoto as an heir, the April 12 motion submitted that the probate court "should revise its prior ruling and permit Mr. Desoto to assert his legal rights as the only biological child to Mr. Rickie Vaughn's estate." According to Mr. Desoto, the probate court "overlooked" the pronouncement of the Legislature and misapplied the law, thereby justifying a revision of the court's order. Explaining his position at the outset of his argument in his motion, Mr. Desoto stated as follows: "Respectfully, Mr. Desoto submits that the Court[] erred in its purely legal conclusion that an administrator of an estate cannot assert someone else's claim against an estate and that revising the Court's March 13, 2018 Order is necessary to comport with the overall statutory scheme and precedential authority governing these types of issues." The essence of the argument-that the trial court's ruling should be revisited due to an alleged clear misapplication of law-is one that is typical of motions to revise under Rule 54.02 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and motions to alter or amend under Rule 59.04. While these rules are obviously not ...


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