Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems

In re Willey, Administrator, 2010 VT 93 (mem.).

In this case, the SCOV ruled that only the probate court has jurisdiction over settlement proceeds after they are distributed, and that the superior court erred in retaining control after final judgment was entered.  

The facts that led to the $900,000 settlement in this case are simple and sorrowful.  Grandmother Julie Willey’s daughter died in a car accident on the way home from a pub while the daughter’s friend was at the wheel with a .18 blood-alcohol concentration.  Grandmother was appointed by the probate court to serve as a financial guardian for the daughter’s two-year old child.  Grandmother filed a dram shop and wrongful death action on behalf of herself and her daughter’s estate, which then settled for the above-mentioned six-digit figure.

Following the settlement, the court appointed a guardian ad litem to granddaughter to represent her interests.  Then, grandmother filed a motion to distribute the settlement proceeds so that the money was split nearly evenly between grandmother and granddaughter.  Although the superior court approved a division of the settlement, it awarded 83% of the settlement to granddaughter and 17% to the grandmother, and appointed a fiduciary to formulate a plan for investing granddaughter’s share of the money.  Grandmother disagreed with the fiduciary’s plan and filed a motion to release all of the settlement funds to her, on the grounds that the superior court did not have jurisdiction once it approved the division of proceeds. The court denied the motion because the settlement distribution process turned the grandmother and granddaughter into adversarial parties.

On appeal, grandmother no longer disputes the allocation of settlement proceeds, but only that the settlement should be released to her as she is granddaughter’s financial guardian.  Additionally, she argued that only the probate court has jurisdiction over how settlement proceeds are invested.  Reviewing de novo, the SCOV agreed with grandmother. 

The SCOV explained that the superior court acted under the wrongful death statute, which only authorizes the court to determine how settlement proceeds are divided, and not how the proceeds are invested after distribution.  However, 14 V.S.A. §2602 states that the probate court can do exactly that, i.e., determine how cash resources of a minor may be invested.  Granddaughter argued that 14 V.S.A. § 2643 allows for superior courts to approve of settlement plans over $1,500, but the SCOV explains that this statute was simply to allow settlement of small claims without appointing a guardian ad litem for a minor party.  Granddaughter then points to Rule 17 of the VRCP which allows the superior court to appoint guardian ad litems, but the SCOV explains that this only relates to the court proceedings itself, and there is nothing to justify jurisdiction for post-judgment distribution.

Essentially, the Court said, “when the probate court stops returning your calls, superior court, it’s time to let go.” 

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