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Maryland Court of Special Appeals Remands Case Back to the Circuit Court to Determine Whether Admission of Earlier Will Was Properly Denied
Jeanne Ellis v. Samira Jones
Mr. John Moore passed away on April 21, 2012. In May of 2012, Samira Jones filed a will purportedly signed by Moore on February 8, 2012 with the Prince George’s County Register of Wills. This 2012 will nominate Jones as the executor or his estate. In the 2012 will, Jones was listed as Moore’s niece, and Jeanne Ellis was listed as Moore’s daughter. The will left almost all Moore’s property to Jones in the form of a trust, and requested to disinherit Ellis from any prior wills.
On June 12, 2012, Ellis filed a petition to caveat the 2012 will by challenging Moore’s competency to execute the will in 2012, stating that during that time Jones had exercised undue influence over Moore when executing the 2012 will.
In 2013, the trial on the petition to caveat commenced before the orphan’s court. Ellis testified that while most of her life, she believed to have been adopted by her step-father, she later found out that Moore was her biological father, and found no legal documentation of adoption by her step-father. When a person has been adopted by a third-party, for purposes of inheritance under intestacy, the person is deemed to be un-inherited by the biological parent. Md. Code (1974, 2011 Repl. Vol.) Trust and Estates Art., § 1-207(a). Jones filed a motion to dismiss the caveat.
In September 2013, the orphan’s court found the evidence was insufficient to prove a legal adoption to Ellis by her step-father and denied Jones’ motion to dismiss the caveat. At the close of the caveat hearing, the court granted the petition to caveat, replacing Jones as personal representative with Ellis, and ordering Jones to return all estate property.
Originally, on March 7, 2014, Jones filed an appeal to the Circuit Court of Prince Georges County to challenge the ruling of the caveat ruling. Ellis filed a motion to dismiss this first appeal.
While this first appeal was pending, Jones filed a motion to admit one of Moore’s previously executed wills from 2011. In the 2011 will, Moore also left almost all of his property to Jones, but he did so directly, rather than through a trust. The orphan’s court denied admission of the 2011 will. On April 22, 2014, Jones filed a motion to alter or amend, as well as a second appeal addressing the denial of admission of the 2011 will.
A de novo appeal commenced in June 2015, and Ellis filed a motion in limine requesting that the circuit court only consider the specific issues identified in the two appeals, and no issues related to the adoption. The court reserved its ruling on Ellis’ motion to dismiss and allowed argument on the adoption. At the end of the trial, the Circuit Court found that Ellis has been adopted, did not address issues related to the admission of the 2011 will, and remanded the case back to the orphan’s court for further proceedings in light of the new decision on adoption.
Ellis appealed the Circuit Court ruling to the Court of Special Appeals alleging: (1) the circuit court erred in denying Ellis’s motion to dismiss Jones’ second appeal because she had failed to pay the filing fees and had not properly transmitted the record on appeal, and for the first appeal, failed to submit a certificate of service, (2) the circuit court erred in failing to affirm the orphan’s court rulings because the circuit court’s ruling was not based on arguments specifically raised in Jones’ appeal, and (3) the circuit court erred in finding that Ellis was adopted.
The Appellate Court first discussed whether the Circuit Court erred in denying Ellis’ motion to dismiss the first appeal. The concern was that the notice of appeal, while accepted and docketed, did not include a certificate of service as required under Md. Rule 6-108(b). While the clerk may have admitted the pleading, the clerk has no discretion to determine whether the paper legally complies with mandatory filing requirements. Lovero v. Da Silva, 200 Md. App. 433, 443 (2011). Without the proper authority to admit a filing without a certificate of service, or without an admission or waiver of service or a signed certificate showing the date and manner of making service, a clerk cannot deem the pleading to be “filed” for the parties have no received adequate notice. Id. Therefore, because the first appeal was never properly filed, any issued discussed on that appeal were not properly before the court.
The Appellate Court then discussed whether Jones’ failure to pay the mandatory filing fees with her second appeal, constituted sufficient reason to dismiss the appeal. The Court found that while filing fees were mandatory for the issue to be “docketed”, the appeal is “filed” as of the date that the clerk receives it. Bond v, Slavin, 157 Md. App. 340, 351-52 (2004). Moreover, the court found that Md. Rule 7-505(e), governing dismissal for failure to transmit the record for an appeal was only permissive.
Because the Appellate Court found that only the second appeal was properly before the Court, they did not address any of Ellis’ concerns on adoption, and instead remanded the case to the Circuit court for further proceedings.
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