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In re Estate of Wierzbicki

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

November 6, 2017

IN RE: THE ESTATE OF ANNA S. WIERZBICKI A/K/A ANNA WIERZBICKI, DECEASED
v.
WANDA KORENOSKI, EXECUTRIX JOAN AND CHRISTOPHER CLARK, APPELLANTS

         Appeal from the Order December 12, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Orphans' Court at No(s): NO. 021102276

          BEFORE: BOWES, J., LAZARUS, J., and OTT, J.

          OPINION

          LAZARUS, J.

         Joan and Christopher Clark ("the Clarks") appeal from the order entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Orphans' Court Division, denying their motion for summary judgment seeking a determination that a certain Wells Fargo account belonging to Anna S. Wierzbicki, Deceased ("Decedent"), was a testamentary asset and determining, sua sponte, that the account is a non-probate asset. Upon careful review, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

         Decedent died on February 25, 2011, leaving a will dated September 2, 2008. Decedent gave her estate, in three equal parts, to: (1) her niece, Joan Clark, and her husband, Christopher Clark, or the survivor of them; (2) her niece, Wanda Korenoski, and her husband, Allen Korenoski, or the survivor of them; and (3) her niece, Florence Eileen Zalewski, and her husband, Chester Zalewski, or the survivor of them. Decedent appointed Florence Zalewski and Wanda Korenoski as co-executrices. However, Florence renounced her right to serve and died thereafter, leaving Wanda Korenoski ("Executrix") as sole executrix.

         At issue in this case is the ownership of a Wells Fargo account ending in the number 6428 ("Account"). Decedent opened the Account in January 2008. At the time, the Decedent did not execute a transfer on death designation. On September 19, 2008, Decedent gave Executrix power of attorney over the Account.

         At some point in January 2011, Executrix went to Decedent's apartment, at which time Decedent asked her to complete the beneficiary designation page of a Transfer on Death ("TOD") Application for the Account. Executrix hand-wrote the names, addresses, social security numbers, telephone numbers, birth dates and percentage interests of the beneficiaries on page two of the application. On January 29, 2011, Decedent signed and dated the beneficiary designation, which gave Executrix 60% of the account proceeds and 40% to Florence Eileen Zalewski. The TOD application was date-stamped upon receipt by Wells Fargo on February 3, 2011. Decedent died on February 25, 2011. On March 3, 2011, Wells Fargo preliminarily rejected the TOD application for failure to designate a contingent TOD beneficiary. The rejection was ultimately reversed and the TOD application was approved on April 6, 2011.

         On December 5, 2014, the Executrix filed an account of her administration. The Clarks filed objections asserting, inter alia, that the Executrix breached her fiduciary duties by failing to pursue, for the benefit of the estate, recovery of the funds contained in the Account and, instead, retained a percentage of them for her own benefit. Specifically, the Clarks asserted that the TOD beneficiary designation was invalid because: (1) Wells Fargo failed to accept it prior to Decedent's death; (2) the beneficiary designations were completed by Executrix, who held power of attorney on the account, in contravention of 20 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 6407 and 6410; and (3) Wells Fargo rejected the TOD application after Decedent's death, rendering it unenforceable under 20 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 6407, 6409 and 6410. The Clarks also alleged that Executrix exercised undue influence upon the Decedent. Accordingly, the Clarks claim that the beneficiary designation is invalid and the Account is the property of the estate.

         The Executrix filed an answer to the Clarks' objections, in which she denied that the failure to designate a contingent beneficiary invalidated the TOD designation. The Executrix also asserted that Wells Fargo followed its own procedures in screening and ultimately accepting Decedent's TOD designation and that the legal bases for the Clarks' claims are unsound.

         On March 23, 2016, the Clarks filed a motion for partial summary judgment asking that the Account be deemed a testamentary asset because the TOD designation was facially invalid under the Transfer on Death Security Registration Act ("the Act"), 20 Pa.C.S.A §§ 6401-6413, and the common law of contracts.[1] The motion did not, however, address the undue influence claim. On December 12, 2016, the court denied the motion and further concluded, as a matter of law, that the Account was a non-probate asset. This appeal follows, in which the Clarks raise the following issues for our review:

1. Did the [Orphans' Court] commit an error of law by failing to conclude that the Wells Fargo account is a testamentary asset?
2. Did the [Orphans' Court] commit an error of law and/or abuse its discretion when concluding - sua sponte and as a matter of law - that the Wells Fargo account is not a testamentary asset?

Brief of Appellants, at 4-5.

         We begin by briefly noting that this Court has jurisdiction to decide the instant matter pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 342(a)(6). Rule 342(a)(6) provides that an appeal may be taken as of right from an order of the Orphans' Court Division that determines an interest in real or personal property. In this case, the Orphans' Court held, as a matter of law, that the Account was a non-probate asset belonging to the beneficiaries named in the TOD ...


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