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COA affirms closing of unsupervised estate

April 28, 2017

In a dispute between two northern Indiana sisters, the Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed the trial court’s decision to close the unsupervised estate of the sisters’ father, finding that the trial court did not apply the wrong legal or statutory standards when closing the estate.

In Nancy Richardson v. Susan Thieme, 05A02-1608-EU-1749, Clayton Ford died in June 2014 and Susan Thieme, one of his daughters, was appointed representative of the estate. However, Nancy Richardson, another of Ford’s daughters, filed a petition for supervised administration of the estate, claiming that Thieme failed to respond to Richardson’s request for inventory of the estate’s assets and that she had sold or disposed of assets without any accounting.

The Blackford Circuit Court allowed continued unsupervised administration and Thieme filed a closing statement and final accounting for the estate that called for each of Ford’s children to receive $14,995.55 in cash and property-in-kind. In February 2016, Richardson filed an objection to the closing statement and final accounting, citing several alleged improprieties and alleging that “the insufficiency of the closing statement and lack of supporting documentation raises … questions and falls short of a full and understandable closing statement.”

During a subsequent hearing on Richardson’s objections, Thieme gave an explanation for each withdrawal from or deposit into the estate’s accounts and said she believed she had distributed the personal property to the heirs “to the best of her ability.” The trial court rejected all of Richardson’s objections, finding that her pleadings were reasonably overcome by the evidence presented at the hearing. The court, thus, ordered the estate closed, and Richardson appealed.

On appeal, Richardson argued that the trial court had applied an incorrect burden of proof when deciding whether to reject her objections. Specifically, Richardson argued that a personal representative, or Thieme in this case, bears the burden of establishing the correctness of the accounting. By finding that her objections had been “reasonably overcome,” Richardson said the trial court incorrectly put the burden of proof on her.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed in a Thursday opinion, with Judge Michael Barnes writing that the “reasonably overcome” statement “clearly indicates that the trial court placed the burden of proof upon Thieme to rebut Richardson’s objections to the closing of the Estate and found that Thieme had met that burden.” Additionally, the appellate panel rejected Richardson’s arguments that the trial court should have enforced Indiana Code section 29-1-16 when closing Ford’s estate because that statute does not apply to unsupervised estates.

Richardson further argued that the trial court erred in finding no improprieties with respect to Thieme’s distribution of their father’s personal property. She specifically took issue with the court’s finding that an “$875 difference between what was received by the heirs one-sixth share is insignificant given the personal property value question and what was actually received by each heir.” Taking that statement in context, Barnes wrote that the trial court did not commit reversible error.

“Given the relative informality of an unsupervised estate administration, we cannot say that a slight discrepancy between an initial appraisal of an estate’s personal property and the records of what those items ultimately sold for is sufficient reason to prevent the closing of such an estate,” Barnes wrote.

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected Richardson’s claim that Thieme had breached her fiduciary duty by engaging in improper self-dealing, with Barnes writing that Richardson failed to allege such conduct in her written objections, thus waiving the issue on appeal.

 

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