decided: October 31, 1980.
IN RE VILMA GRCICH. APPEAL OF PITTSBURGH NATIONAL BANK. IN RE ESTATE OF VILMA GRCICH. APPEAL OF PITTSBURGH NATIONAL BANK
No. 77 March Term, 1978, No. 78 March Term, 1978, Appeals from the Decree of May 1, 1978, of the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, Pennsylvania, Civil Division, at No. 5281 In Equity (No. 77) and Orphans' Court Division at No. 63-78-146 (No. 78).
W. Bryan Pizzi, II, Rosenberg, Sewak & Pizzi, Milton D. Rosenberg, Washington, for appellant.
Charles Skomski, Monessen, for appellee.
Robert S. Englesberg, Asst. Atty. Gen., Pittsburgh, amicus curiae for Dept. of Public Welfare.
Daniel J. Parent, Dist. Counsel, Pittsburgh, amicus curiae for U.S. Veterans Administration.
O'Brien, C. J., and Roberts, Nix, Larsen, Flaherty and Kauffman, JJ. Flaherty, J., did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case.
[ 492 Pa. Page 211]
OPINION OF THE COURT
In Chojnacki Estate, 397 Pa. 596, 156 A.2d 812 (1959), cert. denied, 363 U.S. 826, 80 S.Ct. 1595, 4 L.Ed. 1522 (1960), this Court unanimously approved the use of veterans' benefits as authorized by the Veterans Administration for the care and maintenance of an incompetent veteran in a Commonwealth institution. In considering "'the unique nature of the fund and the statutory protections accorded such benefits during the lifetime of the veteran,'" this Court stated:
[ 492 Pa. Page 212]
"'It is clear that pension benefits paid by the Veterans administration to a veteran for total non-service-connected disability are a governmental gratuity, and the grant of such allowance to the veteran creates no vested right. The gratuity ". . . may be redistributed or withdrawn at any time in the discretion of Congress:" Lynch v. U. S., 292 U.S. 571, 577 [54 S.Ct. 840, 78 L.Ed. 1434].'"
Id., 397 Pa. at 599, 156 A.2d at 814 (quoting orphans' court). Here the guardian of the estate of Vilma Grcich, with the Veterans Administration's approval and pursuant to court order, reimbursed the Commonwealth from veterans' benefits for institutional care and maintenance. In harmony with Chojnacki we conclude that the reimbursement was proper and that the guardian may not be surcharged.
From 1936 until her death in 1973, Vilma Grcich was hospitalized at the Torrance State Hospital, a facility operated by the Commonwealth. In 1955 Mrs. Grcich was formally adjudicated incompetent, and a corporate fiduciary was appointed as guardian of her estate.*fn1 Because one of her sons was a deceased veteran, she became the beneficiary of veterans' payments to provide for her care and support. From 1955 to 1970, the guardian did not pay the Commonwealth for Mrs. Grcich's care and support and instead allowed these veterans' funds to accumulate in her account. When in 1970 the Commonwealth requested reimbursement for the care and support of Mrs. Grcich, the guardian consulted the Veterans Administration, which by letter consented to payment from the accumulated funds.*fn2 The
[ 492 Pa. Page 213]
guardian also petitioned the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County on two occasions for approval of payment pursuant to section 644 of the Incompetent's Estates Act.*fn3 That section provides in part:
"The court, for cause shown, may authorize or direct the payment or application of any or all of the income or principal of the estate of an incompetent for the care, maintenance or education of the incompetent . . . ."
In 1971 and again in 1972 the court determined that payment of the Commonwealth's claim was proper and accordingly issued two orders which "authorized and directed" the payment of a total of $10,483.00 to the Commonwealth. The guardian paid to the Commonwealth the full amount ordered, $10,035.00 of which was from accumulated veterans' benefits.
Following Mrs. Grcich's death in 1973, the guardian filed a final account in the Orphans' Court Division, Washington County Court of Common Pleas. The administrator of decedent's estate, on behalf of decedent's heirs, filed objections collaterally attacking the 1971 and 1972 court-ordered payments made from the incompetent's estate to the Commonwealth for Mrs. Grcich's support. The administrator argued before Judge Simmons in the decedent's estate proceeding that under 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a) veterans' benefits are protected from the claims of creditors and that therefore the previously court-ordered payments to the Commonwealth should not have been made and that the funds should instead have been retained for the benefit of the heirs. In
[ 492 Pa. Page 2141978]
, despite the final and unappealed court orders of 1971 and 1972 by judges of competent jurisdiction coequal to Judge Simmons and despite the Veterans Administration's explicit approval of the payments by the guardian, Judge Simmons surcharged the guardian for the payments made pursuant to the previous court orders in the total amount of $10,035 plus interest. This appeal followed. After consideration and decision, this Court granted reargument. We now reverse.
To those receiving veterans' benefits Congress has granted a special protection under 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a):
"(a) Payments of benefits due or to become due under any law administered by the Veterans' Administration shall not be assignable except to the extent specifically authorized by law, and such payments made to, or on account of, a beneficiary shall be exempt from taxation, shall be exempt from the claim of creditors, and shall not be liable to attachment, levy, or seizure by or under any legal or equitable process whatever, either before or after receipt by the beneficiary . . . ."
This provision assures that the recipient of veterans' payments is provided for during his or her lifetime and that the support funds are not diverted from their intended use by involuntary seizure or attachment. See Chojnacki Estate, supra. Recognizing the protection from judgment creditors afforded under 38 U.S.C. § 3101(a),*fn4 we nevertheless find nothing which would authorize the surcharge of a guardian who, with the consent of the Veterans Administration and court approval, uses veterans funds to pay the Commonwealth for the ward's care and maintenance. See Stein's Estate, 118 Pa. Super. 549, 180 A. 577 (1935), aff'd sub nom.
[ 492 Pa. Page 215]
of proposed expenditures. The Commonwealth's statutory scheme placing upon the courts the responsibility for the "administration and distribution of . . . property of the estates of incompetents . . ."*fn6 leaves no doubt that payments made by a court-appointed guardian pursuant to court order may not, absent fraud, render the guardian individually liable. Although a fiduciary "must be held responsible for payments made without the approval of the court which turn out to have been improper," Heaney v. Riddle, 343 Pa. 453, 457, 23 A.2d 456, 459 (1942), there is no basis for liability where court approval has been obtained. In Appeal of Halsey, 120 Pa. 209, 214, 13 A. 934, 936 (1888), this Court held that the guardian of an incompetent's estate
"was but the officer of the Court of Common Pleas, and all he did was done under the order and sanction of that court; neither can he be punished for its errors, if, indeed, any such there were . . . . His business was to obey the orders of his legal superior, and, having done so, he is entitled to protection."
Accord, In re Guardianship of Sorrels, 58 Ariz. 25, 40, 117 P.2d 96, 102 (1941); see Free's Estate, 327 Pa. 362, 194 A. 492 (1937); White's Estate, 322 Pa. 85, 185 A. 589 (1936); In re Estate of Borntraeger, 50 P.L.J. 336 (1903). No case in this Court has held a fiduciary individually liable when acting pursuant to a court decree. Our courts have always accorded a fiduciary acting under court decree this absolute and essential protection. Indeed, this principle forms the very foundation of the orderly and fair administration of estates by our courts. Were the law otherwise, petitions for court approval of an expenditure of estate assets or for any other purpose would be a total waste of judicial and professional resources and an exercise in futility.
[ 492 Pa. Page 217]
The protection afforded by the court order flows directly from the well-established and far-reaching authority of state courts over court appointed guardians. See Hines v. Stein, 298 U.S. 94, 98, 56 S.Ct. 699, 701, 80 L.Ed. 1063 (1936). To deny this protection here would jeopardize the ability of our courts to satisfy their statutory mandate and would undermine the important Commonwealth interest favoring an orderly and efficient administration of an incompetent's estate.*fn7
The decree of the orphans' court surcharging the guardian for judicially approved reimbursement to the Commonwealth for its cost in caring for and maintaining Mrs. Grcich is reversed. Each party to pay own costs.