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In re Estate of Devoe

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 8, 2013

IN RE: ESTATE OF RICHARD A. DEVOE, DECEASED APPEAL OF: JAMES B. MOONEY

Appeal from the Order Entered June 11, 2012, In the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, Orphans' Court Division, at No. 2210-0053.

BEFORE: BENDER, SHOGAN and FITZGERALD [*] , JJ.

OPINION

SHOGAN, J.

Appellant, James B. Mooney ("Mooney"), appeals from the order of the Orphans' Court in this matter involving the Estate of Richard A. Devoe ("Decedent"). After careful review, we reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

We summarize the history of this case as follows. Mooney and Decedent were, at one time, domestic partners. In March of 1998, they purchased a residence at North Second Street in Harrisburg ("the Residence") as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. On September 5, 2008, Decedent secured, through HSBC Mortgage Corporation, a loan in the amount of $132, 400.00 ("the HSBC Loan"). The HSBC Loan was secured with a mortgage on the Residence, also dated September 5, 2008, in the amount of $132, 400.00. The HSBC Loan was used by Decedent to purchase commercial property also situated on North Second Street in Harrisburg ("the Commercial Property"). Mooney had no ownership interest in the Commercial Property. In addition, Decedent was a fifty-percent owner of a company known as Monard Testing, LLC, with Monique Kelly, the other fifty-percent owner. Likewise, Mooney had no ownership interest in Monard Testing. Decedent leased the Commercial Property to Monard Testing. During his lifetime, Decedent made the monthly payments on the HSBC Loan.

Decedent died in October of 2009, at the age of forty-three, when he had an accident on stairs at the Residence. Decedent died intestate and was survived by his parents. In January of 2010, Decedent's brother and his sister were appointed as Co-Administrators of Decedent's estate ("the Estate").

Mooney requested that the Estate pay the HSBC Loan. However, Decedent's sister Corrine Mahla, Co-Administrator, later stated that the Estate was unable to pay the HSBC Loan because it did not have the funds to make the payments. Counsel for the Co-Administrators advised Mooney's attorney that the Estate could not make payments on the HSBC Loan until some of the Estate assets were sold. The Estate contacted HSBC regarding the HSBC Loan and expressed an intent to attend to the loan. The Estate also requested that HSBC forestall any foreclosure proceedings against the Residence. The Estate never made payments on the HSBC Loan. Subsequently, HSBC initiated a foreclosure action against the Residence.

In February of 2010, Mooney filed a Notice of Claim against the Estate for $132, 400.00. In September of 2010, Mooney sold the Residence, and paid $138, 364.11 to HSBC, in order to satisfy the HSBC Loan and end the foreclosure proceedings. The Estate sold the Commercial Property in October of 2010, and realized proceeds of $95, 000.00 on the sale. The Estate did not list the Commercial Property for sale, but instead sold it in a private sale to one of Decedent's friends. The Estate filed a "First and Partial Account" in February of 2011. Mooney filed objections to the First and Partial Account in March of 2011.

The Estate had a business valuation of Monard Testing performed and the valuation given in the report was $25, 900.00. In June of 2011, the Estate sold Decedent's interest in Monard Testing, in a private sale, to Decedent's former business partner for $2, 000.00. The Estate had not liquidated any other assets, allegedly for sentimental reasons. Decedent's assets included a BMW vehicle and personal property. Also in June of 2011, the Estate filed a "Petition for Adjudication/Statement of Proposed Distribution and First and Partial Account." In July of 2011, Mooney filed objections to the Petition/Account. Mooney also filed a Petition for Surcharge. A hearing on Mooney's objections and petition for surcharge was held over three days, on November 30, 2011, January 3, 2012, and January 5, 2012. After the hearing, and filing of post-hearing briefs, the orphans' court denied Mooney's objections and petition for surcharge on June 11, 2012. This appeal followed.

Mooney presents the following issues for our review:

A. Whether Mooney was entitled to recover on his claim against the Estate under the doctrine of equitable subrogation?
B. Whether Mooney was entitled to recover on his claim against the Estate under the doctrine of unjust enrichment?
C. Whether the Orphans' Court should have addressed the merits of Mooney's other objections and Mooney's petition for surcharge?

Appellant's Brief at 2.[1]

"Our standard of review of the findings of an orphans' court is deferential." In re Ware, 814 A.2d 725, 731 (Pa.Super.2002) (citation omitted). "When reviewing a decree entered by the Orphans' Court, this Court must determine whether the record is free from legal error and the court's factual findings are supported by the evidence." In re Estate of Rosser, 821 A.2d 615, 618 (Pa.Super.2003) (citation omitted), appeal denied, 574 Pa. 761, 831 A.2d 600 (2003). "Because the Orphans' Court sits as the fact-finder, it determines the credibility of the witnesses and, on review, we will not reverse its credibility determinations absent an abuse of that discretion." Ware, supra.
As an appellate court we can modify an Orphans' Court decree only if the findings upon which the decree rests are unsupported by competent or adequate evidence or if there has been an error of law, an abuse of discretion or a capricious disbelief of competent evidence. The test to be applied is not whether we, the reviewing court, would have reached the same result, but whether a judicial ...

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