Appeal, No. 234, Jan. T., 1956, from order of Orphans' Court of Clearfield County, No. 21378, in re estate of Mary E. Cameron, deceased. Order reversed.
Thomas D. McBride, Attorney General, with him Joseph L. Cohen and Lois G. Forer, Deputies Attorney General, for Commonwealth, appellant.
No argument was made nor brief submitted for appellee.
Before Jones, C.j., Bell, Chidsey, Musmanno, Arnold and Jones, JJ.
OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE BENJAMIN R. JONES
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has appealed from a decree of the Orphans' Court of Clearfield County which disallowed its claim against the decedent's estate for the reimbursement of public assistance funds allegedly received by decedent.
When Mary E. Cameron died, intestate, April 6, 1952, she left an estate which, according to the final account, had a balance therein of $12,843.20 subject to unpaid disputed claims of $14,182.78.
At audit the learned court below appointed an auditor, inter alia, to pass upon all unpaid and disputed claims including the Commonwealth's claim. After various hearings the auditor found as a fact (Finding
of Fact 67) that there was "due to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the sum of $5,733.50 on all of its claims against the deceased" and made an award thereof. Exceptions taken by two of decedent's heirs-at-law to the auditor's report were sustained by the lower court for the assigned reason that the evidence concerning the endorsements of the public assistance checks by decedent was "conflicting". After reargument, these exceptions were reaffirmed by the court for the assigned reason that the auditor "did not have sufficient evidence before him upon which to base his findings of fact."
The present inquiry is whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the auditor's findings of fact upon which the claim of the Commonwealth was initially allowed. In Curran's Estate, 310 Pa. 434, 439, 165 A. 842, 844, the extent of appellate review in this situation is clearly enunciated: where an auditor's findings of fact are overruled by a court and reasons are given for its action, it is the duty of the appellate court to fully and carefully examine such reasons "'together with the entire record, and determine whether the action of the court in banc is justified, keeping in mind the weight to which the original findings are entitled and also the reasons given for their overthrow': Belmont Laboratories v. Heist, 300 Pa. 542, 548; Pilling v. Moore, 306 Pa. 406, 410". See also: Mallory's Estate, 295 Pa. 406, 145 A. 577. Because of his better opportunity to judge of the intelligence and credibility of witnesses and their knowledge of the subject under investigation, an auditor's findings of fact from disputed testimony, while not equivalent to the verdict of a jury or to a Chancellor's findings, are entitled to great weight: Dingee v. Wood, 228 Pa. 250, 251, 252, 77 A. 440.
The burden of proving its claim rested upon the Commonwealth. The late Mr. Justice STEARNE, speaking
for this court in Moore Estate, 349 Pa. 236, 240, 36 A.2d 812, 814, said: "The measure of proof required to prove a claim against a decedent's estate in the orphans' court is stated in Hirst's Estate, 274 Pa. 286, 288, 117 A. 682: 'A claim against the estate of a decedent must be as definite and precise as is required to recover a debt in an action at law. While formal pleadings are dispensed with, the claimant should produce evidence showing the nature and character of the debt, its origin, the terms of the contract and the exact amount claimed to be due.'" To the same effect: Deal's Estate, 321 Pa. 484, 488, 184 A. 453, 454; Braden Estate, 363 Pa. 42, 46, 68 A.2d 734, 736. Cf: Donlevy's Estate, 323 Pa. 173, 176, 185 A. 740, 742; Winsmore's Estate, 325 Pa. 173, 176, 185 A. 740, 742; claim can be established against a decedent's estate only by evidence which is clear, direct and positive, or, as is sometimes expressed, clear, precise and indubitable. Stafford v. Read, 363 Pa. 405, 70 A.2d 345; Mooney's Estate, 328 Pa. 273, 194 A. 893.
A clarification of the Commonwealth's claim can be achieved by dividing the claim into four time periods during which the Commonwealth avers it issued public assistance checks to decedent: (1) a claim based on checks issued prior to and including June 25, 1940; (2) a claim based on checks issued from January 27, 1945 to March 28, 1952; (3) a claim based on checks issued from June 25, 1940 to January 27, 1945; and (4) a claim based on checks issued subsequent to April 6, 1952. The checks in the latter classification were issued in the weeks immediately subsequent to decedent's death and were endorsed and cashed, admittedly, by someone other than decedent, and for the amount of these checks the Commonwealth seeks no reimbursement.
We will consider the evidence concerning the claims during each of the three other time periods.
Checks Issued Prior To June ...