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[U] Irish v. Warnshuis

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

October 10, 2013



Appeal from the Judgment Entered August 23, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County Civil Division at No(s): 2009-15746

Appeal from the Decree May 8, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County Civil Division at No(s): 393-2009




In this consolidated appeal, Appellant, William H. Irish, appeals from the judgment entered on August 23, 2012 and from the Orphans' Court's May 8, 2012 decree.[1] We affirm.

Janet B. Irish (hereinafter "Mrs. Irish") and Appellant were married in 1982. The marriage was the second for both Appellant and Mrs. Irish. Mrs. Irish was previously married to Lyle Warnshuis and, during this prior marriage, Mrs. Irish and Lyle Warnshuis had three children, Barry Warnshuis, Candace D. Wells, and Kenneth Jack Warnshuis (hereinafter, collectively "the Warnshuis Children"). Trial Court Opinion, 10/3/12, at 1.

Appellant and Mrs. Irish remained married from 1982 until Mrs. Irish died, testate, on October 13, 2009. Following Mrs. Irish's death – and in accordance with Mrs. Irish's will – Barry Warnshuis and Candace D. Wells were appointed co-executors of Mrs. Irish's estate. Appellant's Complaint, 12/23/09, at ¶¶ 4 and 14. According to Appellant, during the administration of Mrs. Irish's estate, the co-executors asserted ownership over two pieces of property to which, Appellant claimed, the estate was not entitled. These two pieces of property were a 2006 Kia Sportage automobile and the marital home of Appellant and Mrs. Irish, which was located in Corry, Pennsylvania.[2] Appellant's Brief at 5. Appellant thus refused to surrender the Kia automobile and Appellant filed a complaint, in the civil division of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County, wherein Appellant requested that the trial court exercise its equitable powers and impose a constructive trust, in his favor, on the Corry Property. Id.

Within Appellant's complaint, Appellant averred that he and Mrs. Irish purchased the Corry Property in 1987 and that, at the time of the purchase, the couple owned the property as tenants by the entireties. Appellant's Complaint, 12/23/09, at ¶¶ 6 and 9. As Appellant averred, in 1990, he and Mrs. Irish "became concerned that the [Corry Property] could be exposed to personal injury claims arising from [Appellant's] profession as an aircraft mechanic." Id. at ¶ 7. According to Appellant, "[i]n order to protect the [Corry Property] from such claims, [Appellant and Mrs. Irish] executed on January 10, 1990, and thereafter caused to be recorded in [the] Erie County Record Book . . . a deed by which record title [to the Corry Property] would vest in [Mrs. Irish] alone." Id. at ¶ 8. The consideration for the transfer was $1.00. Deed, 1/10/90, at 1. However, and notwithstanding the grant of title to Mrs. Irish, Appellant averred that neither he nor Mrs. Irish "intended that the . . . [c]onveyance would work [as] a divestiture of [Appellant's] survivorship right in the entireties." Appellant's Complaint, 12/23/09, at ¶ 9.

Appellant averred that, in 2003, Mrs. Irish executed a will wherein she stated her intention to devise $20, 000.00 of her separate property to Appellant, with the remainder of her estate to pass to the Warnshuis Children. Id. at ¶¶ 14-16; Mrs. Irish's Last Will and Testament, dated 1/8/03, at 1-2. Appellant acknowledged that, upon Mrs. Irish's death, the plain terms of Mrs. Irish's will placed title to the Corry Property in the Warnshuis Children. Appellant's Complaint, 12/23/09, at ¶ 16. However, Appellant claimed that – since he did not intend to gift the Corry Property to Mrs. Irish – the trial court should exercise its equitable powers, impose a constructive trust over the Corry Property, and order the co-executors to convey the Corry Property to Appellant in fee simple absolute. Id. at ¶ 14-17 and "Wherefore" Clause.

After Appellant instituted his civil action, the co-executors of Mrs. Irish's estate filed a "Petition for Sanctions" against Appellant in the Orphans' Court division of the Erie County Court of Common Pleas. Within their petition, the co-executors claimed that Appellant was obdurately and vexatiously interfering with the administration of Mrs. Irish's estate and that, as a result, they were entitled to both monetary sanctions and attorneys' fees from Appellant. Appellees' Petition for Sanctions, 6/20/11, at ¶¶ 1-50. Further, the co-executors claimed that Appellant was unlawfully refusing to relinquish control over the 2006 Kia Sportage automobile, which was titled in Mrs. Irish's name only and which, the co-executors claimed, belonged to the estate. Id. at 22-24; see also Appellees' Supplemental Petition for Sanctions, 11/14/11, at ¶¶ 1-12.

The civil action and the Orphans' Court proceeding were consolidated before the same lower court judge. On October 7, 2011, November 17, 2011, and January 12, 2012, the Orphans' Court heard testimony on Appellees' Petition for Sanctions; on January 17, 2012 and January 18, 2012, a non-jury trial took place on Appellant's civil action. On May 8, 2012, the lower court issued an "Order" – which served as its decree in both the civil action and the Orphans' Court proceeding. The lower court's decree declared:

AND NOW, to-wit, this 8th day of May, 2012, following a trial on the Complaint in Equity filed by [Appellant] and the scheduled hearings on the Petition for Sanctions filed by Petitioners Barry Warnshuis and Candace Wells, as Co-Executors of the Estate of Janet B. Irish, and in consideration of the Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law submitted by the parties, it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED, and DECREED as follows:
1. Regarding the Equity Action . . . the relief requested by [Appellant] is DENIED to the extent that the [trial c]ourt finds no constructive trust on the [Corry Property] for reasons set forth in [the trial court's] Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.
2. Regarding the Petition for Sanctions . . . the sanctions requested by the Co-Executors of the Estate of Janet B. Irish are DENIED, including the attorneys' fees requested and the $3, 000.00 requested for the depreciation of the Kia [Sportage automobile], for the reasons set forth in the [Orphans' Court's] Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.
3. The 2006 Kia Sportage is an asset of the Estate of Janet B. Irish and the parties shall make arrangements to have the title properly transferred to the Estate for administration purposes.
4. All household goods located in the [Corry Property] during the time that Janet B. Irish was married to [Appellant] are property of [Appellant], having been entireties property prior to [] Mrs. Irish's death.

Lower Court Order, 5/8/12, at 1-2 (internal bolding omitted).[3]

On May 9, 2012, the lower court issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. The lower court's findings of fact were as follows:

1. Janet B. Irish . . . and [Appellant] were married in 1982. [When the couple married, Appellant was a highway maintenance superintendent on the New York State Thruway; Mrs. Irish "had quit her job when [Appellant] married her, " and Mrs. Irish remained unemployed throughout the entirety of the couple's 27-year marriage.]
2. [Mrs. Irish] was previously married to Lyle Warnshuis, who passed away in 1978.
3. Lyle and [Mrs. Irish] had [the Warnshuis Children together].
4.On March 1, 1987, [Mrs. Irish] and [Appellant] purchased [the Corry Property].
5. [Mrs. Irish] and [Appellant] applied the insurance proceeds from the fire in their previous home in Westfield, New York towards the purchase of the Corry Property.
6. Both [Mrs. Irish] and [Appellant] had contributed to the purchase of the Westfield[, New York home], which was held by the entireties and was destroyed by a fire in 1986.
7. At the time of the initial purchase, the Corry Property was titled in the names of [Mrs. Irish] and [Appellant] as entireties property.
8. On January 10, 1990, [Mrs. Irish] and [Appellant] executed a deed transferring record title of the Corry Property to [Mrs. Irish] alone [for the consideration of $1.00. The transfer of title] was prepared by William Barney, [Esquire (hereinafter "Attorney Barney"), and was done] for the following reasons[.]
9. [In 1987, Appellant retired from his job with the New York State Highway Authority – with full pension – and founded a small business devoted to airplane maintenance, which Appellant named "Irish Air."]
10. Although Irish Air did not have a large volume of business, [Appellant] was concerned about potential tort liability resulting from the business' operation.
11. Attorney Barney informed Mr. Irish he could manage potential tort liability by purchasing liability insurance, and that the Corry Property would not be subject to attachment for any judgments due to [Mrs. Irish] and [Appellant] holding the Corry Property as entireties property.
12. In spite of Attorney Barney's advice, [Appellant's] concerns over potential liability factored into his decision to deed the Corry Property to [Mrs. Irish]. The Warnshuis Children dispute that this was [Appellant's] primary motivation.
13. [Appellant] ceased to operate Irish Air following a stroke he suffered in 2005.
14. Upon retiring from the New York State Highway Authority in 1987, [Appellant] was entitled to receive pension benefits on a monthly basis.
15. [Appellant] opted to receive a higher monthly pension benefit without surviving spouse benefits rather than a lower monthly ...

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