DANIEL S. SHEDD and DAVID A. SHEDD, in their capacity as Co-Executors of The Estate of Martin B. Shedd Plaintiffs,
MURIEL SHEDD Defendant.
Providence County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: Barry J. Kusinitz, Esq.
For Defendant: Stephen M. Litwin, Esq.
Introduction and Background
This matter was tried before the Court without a jury on March 11, 2014. The trial involved certain allegations made in Plaintiffs' Complaint and boils down to the essential question of who, based on the specific facts of this case, should pay the interest on a certain Equity Line of Credit secured by a Mortgage recorded against a certain parcel of real property located at 10 Hanley Farm, Warren, Rhode Island (the Subject Premises).
II Standard of Review
In a non-jury trial, the standard of review is governed by Super. R. Civ. P. 52(a) (Rule 52(a)). The Rule provides that "in all actions tried upon the facts without a jury . . . the court shall find the facts specifically and state separately its conclusions of law thereon . . . ." Accordingly, "the trial justice sits as a trier of fact as well as of law." Hood v. Hawkins, 478 A.2d 181, 184 (R.I. 1984). In a non-jury trial, '"determining the credibility of [the] witnesses is peculiarly the function of the trial justice."' McEntee v. Davis, 861 A.2d 459, 464 (R.I. 2004) (quoting Bogosian v. Bederman, 823 A.2d 1117, 1120 (R.I. 2003)). This is so because it is "the judicial officer who [actually observes] the human drama that is part and parcel of every trial and who has had the opportunity to appraise witness demeanor and to take into account other realities that cannot be grasped from a reading of a cold record." In re Dissolution of Anderson, Zangari & Bossian, 888 A.2d 973, 975 (R.I. 2006).
Although the trial justice is required to make specific findings of fact and conclusions of law, "brief findings will suffice as long as they address and resolve the controlling factual and legal issues." White v. Le Clerc, 468 A.2d 289, 290 (R.I. 1983); Rule 52(a). Accordingly, a trial justice is not required to provide an extensive analysis and discussion of all evidence presented in a bench trial. Donnelly v. Cowsill, 716 A.2d 742, 747 (R.I. 1998). See also Anderson v. Town of East Greenwich, 460 A.2d 420, 423 (R.I. 1983). Competent evidence is needed to support the trial justice's findings. See Nisenzon v. Sadowski, 689 A.2d 1037, 1042 (R.I. 1997). Moreover, the trial justice should address the issues raised by the pleadings and testified to during the trial. Nardone v. Ritacco, 936 A.2d 200, 206 (R.I. 2007). However, a trial judge sitting as a finder of fact need not categorically accept or reject each piece of evidence or resolve every disputed factual contention. Notarantonio v. Notarantonio, 941 A.2d 138, 147 (R.I. 2008) (quoting Narragansett Elec. Co. v. Carbone, 898 A.2d 87, 102 (R.I. 2006)).
A Factual Background
1. Trial, Witnesses and Exhibits
The Court conducted a jury-waived trial on March 11, 2014, and thereafter received post-trial memoranda and responses thereto from each party. The Court heard testimony from four (4) witnesses. Daniel Shedd and William Tsonos, Director of Commercial Banking for BankRI, testified for the Plaintiffs. Muriel Shedd and her son, Arthur Kreuter, testified for the Defendant. The Court received thirty-two (32) exhibits in evidence. The exhibits received consisted mainly of five categories: First, documents consisting of probate and background documents, including a death certificate, Last Will and Testament, Codicil, probate appointments, a deed in Plaintiffs' father's name for the Subject Premises, and a Prenuptial Agreement between Plaintiffs' father and the Defendant (Exs. 1-7); documents consisting of various Mortgages on the Subject Premises existing between the dates of June 24, 1987 and December 24, 2004 (Exs. 8-16); documents initially dated between January 25, 2005 and November 21, 2008 consisting of copies of emails, email chains, and a certain letter between attorneys (Exs. 18-25 and Ex. 31); documents consisting of a list of outstanding probate expenses (Ex. 17), as well as applications to the Probate Court (Exs. 26 and 29) to increase the Equity Line of Credit and the Open End Equity Mortgage on the Subject Premises in order to pay the expenses of the Estate, and the actual Mortgages on the Subject Premises (Exs. 27, 28, and 30). The final document is the BankRI ledger (Ex. 32), which was admitted in conjunction with the testimony of William Tsonos.
2. Summary Overview of Witness Testimony
This segment of the Decision is not intended to replace the comprehensive stenographic record nor the copious notes taken by the Court during the trial. The sole purpose of this particular section is to give a general summary and overview of the testimony of the various witnesses regarding the issues framed in the case. Specific portions of a particular witness's testimony and particular findings of fact and credibility determinations will be addressed in other parts of this Decision and may not appear in this summary overview.
Daniel Shedd: Daniel testified credibly about much of the background information. His brother, David, is also a Plaintiff in this case. He testified that his father, Martin B. Shedd, (hereinafter Martin) died testate on January 10, 2005 in Warren, Rhode Island. He described the marital relationship between Martin and Defendant Muriel,  and testified about the Prenuptial Agreement, (with Muriel), the Last Will and Testament, and the Codicil which were all duly filed in the Warren Probate Court. Daniel testified about the various mortgages against the Subject Premises after Martin had purchased the premises in his name alone. Daniel also testified about various communications with Muriel's son, Arthur Kreuter, after Martin died, regarding attempts to reach agreement between the Plaintiffs and Muriel about who should make what payments relative to the Subject Premises, and also as to the value of the Subject Premises. Daniel also testified as to the various steps taken in the Warren Probate Court to pay the expenses of Martin's Estate by increasing the principal amount of outstanding debt on an Open End Mortgage recorded against the Subject Premises. Daniel also testified that he and his brother had paid the interest on said Open End Mortgage and had not been reimbursed by Muriel for any part thereof.
William Tsonos: Mr. Tsonos is the Director of Commercial Banking at BankRI. He testified about the nature of and the content of Exhibit 32. He testified that since the date of Martin's death, $97, 680.31 had been paid as interest against the Open End Mortgage and related Promissory Note for which the Subject Premises stood as security. His testimony was forthright and credible and not seriously challenged on cross-examination. Mr. Tsonos also testified that certain late charges depicted in Exhibit 32 had not been charged to the Plaintiffs. Again, this testimony was credible and not seriously challenged during cross-examination, by other witness testimony, or by post-trial filings.
Muriel Shedd: Muriel testified about her relationship and marriage to Martin. Based upon the Prenuptial Agreement, Martin's Last Will and Testament, and Martin's Codicil, she testified as to her understanding of what payments she was responsible for with regard to a life tenancy she received from Martin in the Subject Premises under the Codicil to Martin's Last Will and Testament. Muriel testified that they (Plaintiffs) "felt I should pay for a part of the mortgage . . . but . . . I felt I didn't owe . . . [it] was not my responsibility." Upon further questioning, she stated, "I guess it's interest . . . Probate never told me I was liable for the interest . . . ." Muriel admitted that her son, Arthur Kreuter, was helping her as to these issues during the years after Martin's death, and she also testified that she had NOT seen the emails put in as exhibits during the trial BUT acknowledged that back around 2005, she "might have."
Arthur Kreuter: Mr. Kreuter is the son of Muriel and no relation to the adult Plaintiffs. He testified that after Martin died, he communicated with Daniel. Initially, he inquired about how long his mother could stay living in the Subject Premises. Daniel made him aware of his mother's life Estate in the Subject Premises and told him Muriel would be responsible for "all expenses" on the house and would not "have to pay anything on the principal" [of the Open End Mortgage]. He testified that Stephen Litwin told him that Muriel was not responsible for the interest on said mortgage. He testified about discussions as to the value of the property with Daniel and disagreement over the value of said property. He testified that the discussions "went poorly" and mentioned an appraisal for approximately $425, 000 to $435, 000, in the context of a discussion about a claimed value of the Subject Premises of $725, 000.
3. Undisputed Facts
Many facts are either not in dispute or they are not seriously contested by the parties in this case. Such facts are established by credible testimony that is relatively undisputed on cross-examination, and are also established or corroborated by other witnesses. Some facts are established or corroborated by certain exhibits admitted during the trial. Additionally, some of the facts are admitted by virtue of Defendant's Answer to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. These facts are initially set forth at this juncture, and they are also the findings of this Court.
Martin B. Shedd (Martin) died testate on January 10, 2005. (Ex. 1). Plaintiffs, Daniel S. Shedd (Daniel) and David E. Shedd (David) are the sons of Martin. They are Co-Executors and sole beneficiaries of their father's Estate, which has been duly admitted to probate in the Town of Warren, Rhode Island. (Exs. 2-3). At the present time, the Estate remains open. Defendant, Muriel Shedd, (Muriel) resides at the Subject Premises. Muriel is the second wife of Martin. The couple was married in Barrington, Rhode Island on February 12, 1983. At the time of their marriage, Martin owned property in Barrington, Rhode Island. At a later date, specifically June 26, 1986, Martin acquired the Subject Premises in Warren, Rhode Island in his name alone. (Ex. 7 – Deed dated June 26, 1986).
The day before their marriage, on February 11, 1983, Martin and Muriel executed a Prenuptial Agreement. Pursuant to Paragraph FIFTH, said agreement provided that "[e]ach of the parties during his or her lifetime shall keep and retain sole ownership, control and enjoyment of all his or her property, real and personal, free and clear of any claims of the other." (Ex. 4). Martin also executed a Last Will and Testament on that same date, February 11, 1983. Said Will, in paragraph EIGHTH, states, "[m]y failure to provide herein for Muriel Kreuter is intentional and not occasioned by accident or mistake. Pursuant to an antenuptial agreement entered into by Muriel Kreuter and me (sic) on February 11, 1983, each of us has waived all rights and interests in the property of the other which may arise by virtue of the marital relation which will exist between us. Each of us further agreed in said agreement that in the event of the death of either of us the survivor would make no claim to any part of the Estate of the other as the surviving spouse." (Ex. 5).
Said Will was amended by Codicil on March 7, 1986. Said Codicil provides in relevant part as follows:
"If my wife, Muriel Shedd, survives me, I give and devise to her for her lifetime the right to use and occupy any real Estate located in Warren, Rhode Island, which I may own at the time of my death, or any interest I may have in and to such real Estate, subject to the requirement that she pay all expenses associated with such real Estate, including, but not limited to, taxes, maintenance, upkeep, repair and insurance." (Ex. 6).
The Will and Codicil were admitted to probate in the Warren Probate Court, and together with the antenuptial agreement, certified copies were admitted ...