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In re Estate of Simmons

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 16, 2019

In re Estate of Joe C. Simmons

          (Greenbrier County 16-AA-06(D))


         Watha Wakando Simmons and Joe C. Simmons were married for approximately seventy years when Mrs. Simmons filed for divorce in 2008. Mrs. Simmons died in April of 2009 before the divorce was finalized, so the Family Court dismissed the divorce action. Mr. Simmons then died in 2015. Petitioner Carol C. Pope[1] filed two creditor's claims against his estate, one on her own behalf and one as executrix of Mrs. Simmons's estate. The Greenbrier County Commission denied Ms. Pope's personal claim outright. It denied the estate's claim, as well, except for a small sum for Mrs. Simmons's interest in the couple's jointly-owned household goods and furnishings. Ms. Pope appealed the County Commission's resolution of both claims, and the circuit court affirmed the County Commission's order. This appeal followed.

         Ms. Pope argues that the lower courts erred in denying her two creditor claims against Mr. Simmons's estate because: (1) the objections to her claims filed by Respondent Kyle P. Simmons, executor of the estate of Mr. Simmons, [2] were not valid "counter affidavits," as required by West Virginia Code § 44-2-6 (2014); (2) the estate of Mrs. Simmons was entitled to equitable distribution of the Simmons's marital estate under West Virginia Code § 48-1-233 (2015); and (3) Ms. Pope was not barred from seeking reimbursement from Mr. Simmons for settlement and mediation costs of an earlier litigation, undertaken on Mrs. Simmons's behalf.

         Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, the record presented, and oral argument, [3] the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the order of the circuit court is appropriate under Rule 21 of the West Virginia Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         We begin with a discussion of Mr. and Mrs. Simmons's divorce proceeding. Mrs. Simmons sued Mr. Simmons for divorce in the Family Court of Greenbrier County in November of 2008. On January 30, 2009, the family court entered a temporary order that required that "[a]ll marital property be placed into a constructive trust." Mrs. Simmons died approximately three weeks later, on February 22, 2009. Two months later, Ms. Pope sought to be named a party to the divorce action. The family court denied Ms. Pope's request and found that Mrs. Simmons's death required the dismissal of the divorce action. Ms. Pope appealed that dismissal order to the circuit court, which denied her appeal in April of 2010. This Court refused Ms. Pope's appeal later that year.[4]

         Mrs. Simmons left the couple's marital home before filing for divorce in 2008, and eventually moved into a nursing home. After she died in 2009, Shenandoah Manor, the owner of the nursing home where Mrs. Simmons had lived, filed a civil action against Mr. Simmons and Ms. Pope, seeking payment of $23, 140 owed for Mrs. Simmons's care. Ms. Pope filed a cross-claim against Mr. Simmons requesting judgment against him for payment of all claims, alleging that he had agreed to pay Mrs. Simmons's bill as part of the divorce action. The parties mediated, and it is undisputed in the record that Ms. Pope paid Shenandoah Manor and the mediator $7, 600 to settle the case.[5] The circuit court then dismissed the matter with prejudice-including Ms. Pope's cross-claim-by order entered on February 7, 2013.

         Mr. Simmons died on April 23, 2015. Six days later, Kyle Simmons was appointed executor of his father's estate and Mr. Simmons's will was presented and admitted to probate. In October of 2015, Ms. Pope, individually and as executrix of the estate of Mrs. Simmons, filed two creditor's claims against Mr. Simmons's estate. First, Ms. Pope claimed that she was entitled to reimbursement in the amount of $7, 600 for payments she made to settle the Shenandoah Manor litigation. Second, she claimed that Mrs. Simmons's estate was entitled to the value of one-half of all real and personal property owned or possessed by Mr. and Mrs. Simmons as of February 22, 2009, when Mrs. Simmons died.[6]

         In November of 2015, Kyle Simmons filed objections to both of Ms. Pope's creditor's claims. These objections were signed by his counsel. While those objections were not verified, the circuit court's order affirming the County Commissioner refers to "two copies of verifications to the objections." The estate was referred to a fiduciary commissioner for settlement of claims and a hearing was conducted on April 25, 2016. The fiduciary commissioner issued her report and recommendation in August 2016.

         After conducting a hearing on August 24, 2016, the County Commission accepted the fiduciary commissioner's recommendation on September 7, 2016. The County Commission's final order denied both of Ms. Pope's claims, except that it granted the estate of Mrs. Simmons one-half the value of the household goods and furnishings jointly owned by Mr. and Mrs. Simmons, which totaled $4, 481.04. Finding that Ms. Pope previously received household goods and furnishings valued at $1, 971, the County Commission ruled that Mrs. Simmons's estate was entitled to $269.52 as the estate's remaining share of one-half of the value of the household goods and furnishings (($4, 481.04 ÷ 2) - $1, 971).

         In September of 2016, Ms. Pope appealed the County Commission's order to the circuit court. The circuit court rejected Ms. Pope's contention that Kyle Simmons's objections to the creditor's claims were defective because they were not verified when filed and ruled that "there is no requirement that a counter affidavit filed in response to a properly filed claim against the estate of a decedent be verified," citing both the plain language of West Virginia Code §§ 44-2-5 and -6 and this Court's decisions in In re Estate of Hardin[7]and In re the Estate of McIntosh.[8] The circuit court also noted that the record included two copies of general verifications to objections, which were filed before the hearing held by the fiduciary commissioner.

         As for Ms. Pope's argument that the estate of Mrs. Simmons was entitled to one-half of the marital estate at the time of her death according to West Virginia Code § 48-1-233, the circuit court concluded that "equitable distribution of marital property as discussed in West Virginia Code Chapter [48] governing domestic relations . . . is irrelevant." The circuit court cited our earlier decisions in Bridgeman v. Bridgeman, [9] and Zikos v. Clark, [10]where we found that the property rights of parties who were granted a divorce before death were enforceable, and distinguished this case from Bridgeman and Zikos on the grounds that the divorce abated when Mrs. Simmons died.

         Regarding Ms. Pope's claim for reimbursement of the payments she made to settle the Shenandoah Manor matter, the circuit court found that Ms. Pope was barred by collateral estoppel from seeking recovery against Mr. Simmons's estate, since that issue was finally adjudicated in 2013. And, the circuit court found that the fiduciary commissioner followed the proper procedure in determining ownership of the property at issue. The circuit court noted that Ms. Pope failed to cite to any authority to support her contention that the constructive trust from the divorce action survived the dismissal of that action, or to counter the County Commission's finding that equitable distribution under the domestic relations statute was not applicable to her claim. Finally, the circuit court rejected Ms. Pope's claim that Mr. Simmons's estate was unjustly enriched.

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the circuit court's final order and ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard. We review challenges to findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.[11]

         III.Discus ...

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