When to Appeal from Denial of a Probated Claim

September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

We should all know by now that a judgment that disposes of fewer than all of the contested issues in a case, or as to fewer than all of the parties, is not final and appealable, per MRCP 54(b).

So, consider this case …

You represent a creditor who has timely probated a claim against an estate. The executor files a contest to your client’s claim and notices it for hearing. At the close of the hearing the chancellor renders a bench opinion denying your client’s claim and enters a judgment to that effect. Now your client wants to appeal.

… what is your appeal time?

On one hand, the judgment denying the probated claim obviously disposes of fewer than all of the contested issues in the case, and fewer than all of the other parties are finally affected (i.e., other creditors, heirs or beneficiaries, etc.). So is an appeal barred by R54(b)?

On the other hand, your client’s involvement in the case is most assuredly concluded. The estate will proceed on its merry way without your client’s further involvement. And it could take months or even years for the court to wind up the estate and enter a final judgment closing it. Why should your client have to wait.

The question did arise in the recent COA case, Estate of Holmes: Holmes v. Turner, decided September 1, 2015. In that case, Becky Turner and her nephew, Brett Holmes, were in a dispute over a claim that Brett probated against the estate of Frances B. Holmes. The chancellor denied the claim and Brett appealed. Becky asserted on appeal that the court’s order or judgment overruling the claim was not a final, appealable judgment, and that, therefore, Brett’s appeal was untimely. In footnote 3, at ¶16, Justice Maxwell, writing for the court, disagreed with Becky’s position:

Becky asserts this order was not final and appealable, comparing it to the interlocutory order in the lawsuit-within-an-estate case In re Estate of Drake, 134 So. 3d 328 (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). But in contrast to the order in that case, the chancellor’s order here finally resolved the probate claim by Jimmy’s estate that Brett lodged against Frances’s estate. Further, both the Mississippi Supreme Court and this court have exercised appellate jurisdiction over timely appeals from orders either allowing or disallowing claims against still-open estates. E.g., In re Estate of Petrick, 635 So. 2d 1389 (Miss. 1994); In re Estate of Ladner, 911 So. 2d 673 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005).

That sort of obliquely says that the time to appeal is within thirty days of the order or judgment denying the claim, but it does not come right out and say so.

There actually is a case, however, that directly answers the question. In Estate of Philyaw: Braxton v. Johnson, 514 So.2d 1232, 1236-7 (Miss. 1987), Braxton contested Johnson’s claim. Johnson prevailed, and Braxton did not immediately file an appeal, but rather waited until the judgment closing the estate was entered. The MSSC said this:

The question therefore is whether the time for an appeal for an administrator or executor unhappy with a decree allowing a contested claim runs from the date of such decree or from the date of the decree finally closing the estate. Darryl has not seen fit to cite this Court with any apposite authority supporting his response to Johnson.

We agree with Johnson, that the time for any appeal from a chancellor’s decision on the claim started on the date of the decree allowing it.

Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-165 is the statutory procedure for contested creditors’ claims. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-9 recognizes final decrees include “matters testamentary and of administration …” Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-99 specifically authorizes executors or administrators to appeal from any decree affecting them in their fiduciary capacity.

While the specific jurisdictional question raised by Johnson has never been addressed by this Court, it appears that appeals by administrators or executors unhappy with a decree allowing a contested claim have generally been taken from that decree. See: McKellar’s Estate v. Brown, 404 So.2d 550 (Miss.1981); Wooley v. Wooley, 194 Miss. 751, 12 So.2d 539 (1943); Ellis v. Berry, 145 Miss. 652, 110 So. 211 (1926).

That the administrator or executor’s time to appeal begins to run from date of the decree allowing the claim is supported by most of the authorities from other states which have addressed this question. See: Parsons v. M.E. McCabe & Son, 127 Kan. 847, 275 P. 173 (1929); In re Swanson’s Estate, 239 Iowa 294, 31 N.W.2d 385 (1948); In re Hildreth’s Estate, 113 Vt. 26, 28 A.2d 633 (1942).

There is, however, some contrary authority. See: In re Naegely’s Estate, 31 Cal.App.2d 470, 88 P.2d 715 (1939); In re Gooder’s Estate, 68 S.D. 415, 3 N.W.2d 478 (1942); In re Allen’s Estate, 175 Wash. 65, 26 P.2d 396 (1933).

We find the better view is that time for an appeal should run from the date of the decree on the claim.

The efficient and orderly administration of estates and payment of all just debts without unjustified delay compels our conclusion. To permit an administrator to wait until an estate is otherwise ready for closing before deciding whether or not to appeal a decree allowing a claim would countenance outrageous postponements in paying the indebtednesses due by the estate. Moreover, an administrator cannot close an estate until there has been a final adjudication as to precisely what debtors are due by the estate, which he has a duty to pay. See: Miss.Code Ann. § 91-7-291; Fidelity & Deposit Co. v. Doughtry, 181 Miss. 586, 179 So. 846 (1938); Walker v. Woods, 166 Miss. 471, 148 So. 354 (1933).

The time for taking an appeal from the November 8, 1982, decree having long since expired, this Court is without jurisdiction to hear any defense to Johnson’s claim against the Philyaw estate. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-51-5.

Philyaw deals with the time for an administrator or executor to appeal from a ruling adverse to the estate, but there is no logical reason why the same rationale should not apply to a creditor appealing from an adverse ruling. It’s that goose-and-gander thing.

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