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Larkin v. Arthurs

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 17, 2019

Lizbeth A. Larkin, in her capacity as Executrix of the Estate of Catherine I. Ryan
Michaela Arthurs et al. Michaela Arthurs et al.
Lizbeth Larkin.

          Washington County Superior Court (WP 14-93), (WP 14-423) Associate Justice Luis M. Matos

          For Plaintiff: Kevin M. Daley, Esq. Marvin H. Hormonoff, Esq.

          For Defendant: Michael T. Eskey, Esq. Stephen A. Izzi, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.



         This contentious and regrettable family dispute revolves around the distribution of the assets of the parties' deceased mother, Catherine Ignatia Ryan.[1] Two of Mrs. Ryan's children, Michaela Arthurs and Mark Ryan, appeal from the November 9, 2016 final judgments in two Washington County Superior Court actions that were treated in a consolidated manner in that court and are likewise being reviewed by us in a consolidated manner. Before us are the Superior Court's rulings with respect to the substance of two orders of the Probate Court of the Town of South Kingstown.[2] Those rulings of the Superior Court provided that: (1) as to two specific bank accounts at BankNewport, those accounts were not estate assets and should be distributed pursuant to paragraph three of Catherine's will-i.e., one should be distributed to Lisa and the other to Lizbeth rather than being divided equally among all four of Catherine's children; and (2) there was no basis to remove Lizbeth as executrix of Catherine's estate. Michaela and Mark timely appealed both judgments of the Superior Court to this Court.

         For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm both judgments of the Superior Court.

         I. Facts and Travel

         It is undisputed that Catherine died on January 14, 2013. It is also undisputed that, at some point in 2012 after having sold her house, Catherine deposited the proceeds of the sale into an account at Washington Trust (the proceeds account). It is undisputed that Catherine then drew upon the proceeds account by having two checks issued in her name in the amount of $50, 000 each. The parties further agree that, in October of 2012, those checks were deposited into two bank accounts at BankNewport, into each of which was deposited $50, 000. The first account indicates that its owners are "Catherine I. Ryan or Lizbeth Larkin." The second account indicates that its owners are "Catherine I. Ryan or Lisa A. Ryan." Neither account was specifically identified as being a joint account with right of survivorship (nor did either account contain any indication to the contrary).

         In early February of 2013, Lizbeth filed in the Probate Court a petition to probate Catherine's last will and testament. (Catherine's will had named Lizbeth as executrix.) When Lizbeth filed the universal inventory with the Probate Court, she did not make reference therein to the two BankNewport accounts.[3] Michaela and Mark then proceeded to file an objection to the inventory, contending that the two BankNewport accounts should have been included.

         On July 25, 2013, the probate judge ordered Lizbeth to amend the inventory by including therein the two BankNewport accounts. Lizbeth did not appeal that order to the Superior Court, and she amended the inventory. Several months later, on February 5, 2014, the probate judge issued another order, which provided that the two accounts were part of what he termed as the "general inventory" of the estate. He then determined that the proceeds from those accounts should be distributed under paragraph six of Catherine's will, pursuant to which they would be distributed "in equal shares" among the four siblings. Lizbeth timely appealed the latter order to the Superior Court.

         On March 19, 2014, Michaela and Mark filed what was titled a "renewed motion" in the Probate Court seeking to remove Lizbeth as executrix. On June 17, 2014, the probate judge issued an order denying that motion. Michaela and Mark then timely appealed that order to the Superior Court.

         The two appeals from the Probate Court were consolidated, and a trial was held in the Superior Court on November 30, 2015. At the trial, Lizbeth testified that, in October of 2012, Catherine had been informed by her doctors "that she only had a matter of months to live." Lizbeth further testified that, on October 16, 2012, a few days after receiving what Catherine referred to as her "death sentence," Catherine requested Lizbeth to drive her to an office of Washington Trust. It was Lizbeth's testimony that, at Washington Trust, Catherine asked that two $50, 000 bank checks be made out to her from her account at that bank with the balance to remain in a Washington Trust account in her name. Lizbeth testified that, upon leaving Washington Trust, Catherine stated that the funds left in the Washington Trust account after the withdrawal of the two $50, 000 checks "would be her probate." Lizbeth said that her mother then asked to be taken to an office of BankNewport and to have Lisa meet them there.

         Lizbeth further testified that Lisa did meet them at BankNewport and that Catherine told a bank representative that she wanted to open one account for Lisa and another account for Lizbeth. Into each of those two accounts Catherine deposited one of the $50, 000 Washington Trust checks. It was Lizbeth's further testimony that Catherine told her that "the probate was set up * * * and whatever was left [was] to be divided by four * * *."

         Lisa also testified at trial. She stated that, at the time of the opening of the BankNewport accounts, Catherine told her that she wanted one of the accounts to belong to Lizbeth and one to Lisa.

         There were several joint exhibits admitted into evidence at trial, including: Catherine's will; the deposition testimony of Lisa Sellar, a "retail banking administrator" in the employ of BankNewport; the deposition testimony of Paul Ragosta, the attorney who had advised Catherine concerning her will and drafted the will at issue; and a letter from Lizbeth to Michaela relative to Catherine's estate. Pertinent portions of those exhibits will be discussed hereinafter.

         Several months later, on August 31, 2016, the trial justice issued a bench decision. He first addressed and then rejected the arguments of Michaela and Mark to the effect that the appeal should be rejected on "law of the case," res judicata, or "jurisdictional" grounds. He proceeded to hold that, after considering the principles set forth in this Court's opinion in the case of Robinson v. Delfino, 710 A.2d 154 (R.I. 1998), [4] the absence of a designation on the two BankNewport accounts relative to the survivorship issue was, in his words, "the product of a mistake by the bank * * *."[5] He further determined that that mistake allowed for the examination of extrinsic evidence as to Catherine's intent because "the Court can't go simply on the face of these two accounts * * *." He then found that "the two accounts, although on their face [they] do not contain a designation of a right of survivorship * * * were accounts that were created with the right of survivorship." The trial justice proceeded to hold that the two BankNewport accounts "should be distributed pursuant to the terms of paragraph 3 of the will * * *." Accordingly, he concluded that each of the two BankNewport accounts should be distributed to Lisa and Lizbeth respectively as surviving owners and should not be divided among all four siblings equally pursuant to paragraph six of the will.

         With respect to the second issue before him, the trial justice affirmed the Probate Court's decision not to remove Lizbeth as executrix because he found that there was no "ill or improper intent" on the part of Lizbeth and because he determined that she "appears to have been acting in accordance with what she understood her mother's wishes to be * * *."

         Subsequently, on October 18, 2016, the Superior Court justice issued an order in the consolidated appeals. That order provided that the two accounts should be distributed to Lizbeth and Lisa and that there was no basis to remove Lizbeth as executrix; final judgments to that effect were entered for Lizbeth in the two cases on November 9, 2016.[6] Michaela and Mark appealed those final judgments to this Court.

         II Standards of Review

         It is well established that a probate appeal to the Superior Court "is de novo in nature * * *." Lett v. Giuliano, 35 A.3d 870, 876 (R.I. 2012); see G.L. 1956 § 33-23-1(b) ("An appeal under this chapter is not an appeal on error but is to be heard de novo in the superior court.").

         It is a fundamental principle of our appellate jurisprudence that "the factual findings of a trial justice sitting without a jury are accorded great weight and will not be disturbed unless the record shows that the findings clearly are wrong or the trial justice overlooked or misconceived material evidence." In re Estate of Ross, 131 A.3d 158, 166 (R.I. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted); see B.S. International Ltd. v. JMAM, LLC, 13 A.3d 1057, 1062 (R.I. 2011); Bielecki v. Boissel, 715 A.2d 571, 575 (R.I. 1998). If, in our review of the record, "it becomes clear to us that the record indicates that competent evidence supports the trial justice's findings, we shall not substitute our view of the evidence for [that of the trial justice] even though a contrary conclusion could have been reached." In re Estate of Ross, 131 A.3d at 166 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Similarly, "[w]e accord great weight to a trial justice's determinations of credibility, which, inherently, are the functions of the trial court and not the functions of the appellate court." JPL Livery Services, Inc. v. Rhode Island Department of Administration, 88 A.3d 1134, 1142 (R.I. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Rodriques v. Santos, 466 A.2d 306, 309 (R.I. 1983) ("On appeal we do not consider arguments that certain evidence is more credible than other evidence. That is a function of the trial court.").

         Additionally, it should be borne in mind that, "[w]hen interpreting the language of a will, * * * we proceed on a de novo basis, just as we do when we interpret the language in contracts." Lazarus v. Sherman, 10 A.3d 456, 462 (R.I. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). "This Court's primary objective when construing language in a will or trust is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the testator or settlor as long as that intent is not contrary to law." Steinhof v. Murphy, 991 A.2d 1028, 1033 (R.I. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. Issues on Appeal

         On appeal, Michaela and Mark contend, with respect to the distribution controversy, that the trial justice: (1) acted without jurisdiction to review an "unappealed" order of the Probate Court; (2) improperly allowed hearsay testimony at trial; (3) erroneously determined that there had been a mistake regarding the opening of the two BankNewport accounts; (4) erred in his ruling relative to the distribution of the two BankNewport accounts; and (5) improperly considered extrinsic evidence when interpreting the will. As for the removal controversy, Michaela and Mark contend that the trial justice erroneously affirmed the Probate Court's denial of their motion to remove Lizbeth as executrix.

         IV. Analysis

         A. The Distribution Controversy

         1. The Alleged ...

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