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ESTATE SANDRA L. OSBORNE (05/12/87)

filed: May 12, 1987.

ESTATE OF SANDRA L. OSBORNE, DECEASED. APPEAL OF MARGARET FAULKNER


Appeal from the Order entered October 3, 1984 in the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas, Orphans' Court Division, No. 123 of 1984.

COUNSEL

M. Maley Peterson, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Cirillo, President Judge, and Cavanaugh, McEwen, Brosky, Del Sole, Beck, Tamilia, Kelly and Johnson, JJ. Cirillo, President Judge, files a dissenting opinion in which Del Sole, J., joins. Brosky, J., files a dissenting opinion.

Author: Kelly

[ 363 Pa. Super. Page 203]

In this case of first impression, we are called upon to determine whether the Orphans' Court division of the Courts of Common Pleas may direct the Register of Wills to issue letters of administration to an individual selected by the Orphans' Court. We hold that, upon finding that the Register abused its discretion in choosing an administrator, the Orphans' Court may determine the proper individual to act as administrator, and direct the Register to issue letters of administration to that individual.

This case involves an appeal from an Order directing the Register of Wills to revoke a previous grant of letters of administration and to issue letters to the Dauphin Deposit Bank and Trust Company (Bank).*fn1 Appellant argues that

[ 363 Pa. Super. Page 204]

    the power to select an administrator lies within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Register, and that the court was without jurisdiction to direct the Register to issue letters to an individual selected by the court. Alternatively, she contends that the court erred in its choice of the trust company as the new administrator; in appellant's view, she should have been chosen. We disagree with appellant's contentions, and hold that the court below acted within its power in directing the issuance of letters of administration to a particular party. Further, we find that the court below did not abuse its discretion in ordering the issuance of letters to the Bank. Accordingly, we affirm.

The decedent, Sandra Osborne, was divorced from her husband, appellee Leroy Osborne. She died intestate on June 16, 1984. Upon Sandra's death, however, Leroy applied to the Register of Wills for letters of administration for Sandra's estate. The Register granted Leroy's application. Appellant, Sandra's mother, petitioned the Orphans' Court division of the Court of Common Pleas to revoke the letters issued to Leroy. After a hearing on this issue, the court directed the Register to revoke the letters.*fn2 The court further ordered the Register to issue letters of administration to the Bank as a neutral third party. Appellant does not challenge the revocation of the letters from Leroy Osborne; she had requested the revocation. Instead, she appeals the portion of the order which issues the letters of administration to the Bank.

[ 363 Pa. Super. Page 205]

In order to more readily understand the issues presented in this case, it is necessary to review the applicable statutes and the routine procedures pertaining to the issuance of letters of administration. The jurisdiction of both the Register of Wills and the Orphans' Court division of the Courts of Common Pleas is outlined in Title 20, entitled Decedents, Estates and Fiduciaries. Section 711 of Title 20, governing the "[m]andatory exercise of jurisdiction through orphans' court division in general," provides in pertinent part:

(12) Fiduciaries. The appointment, control, settlement of the accounts of, removal and discharge of, and allowance to and allocation of compensation among, all fiduciaries of estates and trusts, jurisdiction of which is exercised through the Orphans' Court division, except that the register shall continue to grant letters testamentary and of administration to personal representatives as heretofore.

(Emphasis added). Regarding the jurisdiction of the Register of Wills, 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 901 provides:

Within the county for which he has been elected or appointed, the register shall have jurisdiction of the probate of wills, the grant of letters to a personal representative, and any other matter as provided by law.

(Emphasis added).

Under typical procedure, an application is submitted to the Register requesting the grant of letters of administration. The order of priority for individuals entitled to a grant of letters is set forth by statute. 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3155 states in relevant part:

§ 3155. Persons entitled

[ 363 Pa. Super. Page 206]

Alternatively, an aggrieved party may appeal the Register's decision to the Orphans' Court division of the Court of Common Pleas. 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 908 provides in pertinent part:

§ 908. Appeals

(a) When allowed. -- Any party in interest who is aggrieved by a decree of the register, or a fiduciary whose estate or trust is so aggrieved, may appeal therefrom to the court within one year of the decree . . .

Upon the filing of an appeal, and after entry of security,*fn3 the Register normally transmits the record to the Orphans' Court. There, a petition is presented on the motion list for the award of a citation, directing all parties in interest to show cause why the appeal should not be sustained and the decree of the Register set aside. See 1 Remick's Orphans' Court Practice, § 4.06, 201 (1979).

The final relevant statutory provision, 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3183, authorizes the Orphans' Court division to consider revocation sua sponte of letters of administration previously granted by the Register. Section 3183 provides:

§ 3183. Procedure for and effect of removal

The court on its own motion may, and on the petition of any party in interest alleging adequate grounds for removal shall, order the personal representative to appear and show cause why he should not be removed, or, when necessary to protect the rights of creditors or parties in interest, may summarily remove him. Upon removal, the court may direct the grant of new letters testamentary or of administration by the register to the person entitled. . . . Any personal representative summarily removed under the provisions of this section may apply, by petition, to have the decree of removal vacated and to be reinstated, and, if the court shall vacate the decree of removal and reinstate him, it shall thereupon

[ 363 Pa. Super. Page 208]

    make any orders which may be appropriate to accomplish the reinstatement.

(Emphasis added).

Having recited the relevant statutory provisions and the procedure surrounding the granting of letters, we now consider the issues presented in the instant case.

I.

Appellant first contends that the Orphans' Court division acted beyond its jurisdiction in directing the Register to issue letters of administration to the Bank. Appellant concedes that, upon removal of the case to the Orphans' Court division,*fn4 the court had the authority to revoke the letters which were previously granted by the Register.*fn5 According to appellant, however, after revoking the letters, the Orphans' Court must remand the matter to the Register, who will then entertain new applications for letters of administration. Appellant claims that the selection of a proper administrator is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Register of Wills. Although we agree that the original selection of an administrator is normally a task within the jurisdiction of the Register, we hold that, upon a finding by the Orphans' Court that the Register has abused its discretion in the selection of the original administrator, the Orphans' Court may review the evidence presented, revoke the letters, and direct the Register to issue letters to the

[ 363 Pa. Super. Page 209]

    individual whom the court finds to be entitled to administer the estate.

Appellant cites several sections of Title 20 in support of her contention that only the Register of Wills may select the individual to whom letters of administration shall be issued. Appellant first cites Section 901, supra, which states that "the register shall have jurisdiction of . . . the grant of letters." Appellant contends that the authority of the Register alone to select the individuals to whom letters of administration shall be issued is confirmed in Section 711(12), which defines the jurisdiction of the Orphans' Court as including "[t]he appointment, . . . removal, and discharge of . . . all fiduciaries . . ., except that the register shall continue to grant letters . . . of administration."

We agree that, as set forth by statute, the selection of the person to whom the initial grant of letters is to be made is normally*fn6 within the exclusive province of the Register. Upon review of the statutes pertaining to removal of the case to the Orphans' Court, however, we conclude that the court may, upon such removal, review the evidence to determine whether the Register abused its discretion, and if necessary, revoke the letters and direct the Register to issue letters to the individual whom the court finds is entitled. Two sections of Title 20 lead us to this conclusion. First, Section 907, supra, states that whenever a dispute arises before the Register concerning the grant of letters, either the Register or the court may certify the "entire record to the court, which shall proceed to a determination of the issue in dispute." No language of limitation is used to describe the authority of the Orphans' Court upon removal of the case from the Register; rather, the statute refers generally to "a dispute" regarding the grant of letters and

[ 363 Pa. Super. Page 210]

    allows the Orphans' Court to determine "the issue in dispute."

The second statute which leads us to conclude that the court may determine the individual who is entitled to the grant of letters is 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3183, set forth supra. Section 3183, entitled "Procedure for and effect of removal," states that "[u]pon removal, the court may direct the grant of new letters. . . by the Register to the person entitled." Appellant contends that this section authorizes the Orphans' Court division to direct the Register to remove a personal representative and to grant new letters of administration to the individual whom the Register determines is entitled. We disagree with this construction of the statute.

The object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature. Young v. Young, 507 Pa. 40, 488 A.2d 264 (1985); Patton v. Republic Steel Corp., 342 Pa. Super. 101, 492 A.2d 411 (1985); 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1921(a). When the words of a statute are ambiguous or susceptible to more than one interpretation, the intention of the General Assembly may be ascertained by considering the object to be obtained by a statute and the consequences of a particular interpretation; the court must presume that the legislature does not intend a result that is absurd or unreasonable. Zimmerman v. O'Bannon, 497 Pa. 551, 556, 442 A.2d 674, 677 (1982); Goodman v. Kennedy, 459 Pa. 313, 328, 329 A.2d 224, 232 (1974); Fireman's Fund Ins. v. Nationwide Mut. Ins., 317 Pa. Super. 497, 502, 464 A.2d 431, 434 (1983); 1 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 1921(c)(6), 1922(1).

The statute in question, 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3183, is certainly not free from ambiguity; the words "the court may direct the grant of new letters by the Register to the person entitled" may be interpreted as permitting the court to direct the Register to issue letters to either the person whom the Register finds to be entitled or to the person whom the court finds to be entitled. We find that the obvious purpose ...


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