A probate court erred by appointing a divorced couple as the co-personal representatives of their deceased daughter’s estate, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled, remanding the matter for the appointment of a third-party personal representative.
In the case of In re Estate of Seville (Docket No. 348819), plaintiff Tonya Phillips and defendant Andrew Seville were divorced. The couple had a contentious relationship. When their daughter was killed in a 2019 accident, the plaintiff and the defendant sought to be individually named as the personal representative of her estate.
The Eaton County Probate Court found that each party was unsuited in their individual capacity to serve as personal representative. Therefore, the probate court appointed the plaintiff and the defendant as co-personal representatives of the estate.
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.
“Here, neither party agreed to renounce their priority and at least [the plaintiff] did not agree to serve [as personal representative] in a shared capacity with [the defendant],” the Court of Appeals said, citing the Estates and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC). “Accordingly, the trial court was precluded from appointing [the parties] as co-personal representatives.”
Judges Patrick M. Meter, Karen M. Fort Hood and Mark T. Boonstra were on the panel that issued the per curiam decision.
The plaintiff and the defendant were divorced in 2000. Their daughter, Tiana Seville, died in January 2019 when her moped was struck by a snowplow. The plaintiff filed a petition to be appointed personal representative of Tiana’s estate. The defendant filed an objection to the petition and asked that he be appointed personal representative or, alternatively, that he and the plaintiff be appointed co-personal representatives or a neutral third party be appointed.
At a hearing, the parties agreed they had equal priority to the appointment and, instead, the focus was on whether either party was suitable to serve as personal representative. According to the Court of Appeals, the record showed that the parties’ relationship was “wrought with contention” and they were subject to a no-contact order.
A portion of the probate court hearing also focused on Tiana’s funeral. The defendant claimed the funeral was handled through a GoFundMe account, to which he had contributed $500 to the $11,688 that was raised. The plaintiff’s attorney, however, asserted the GoFundMe account was not used to pay for the funeral and that his client had paid for the funeral with her own money. Further, the defendant accused the plaintiff of purposely keeping him from participating in the funeral arrangements and claimed the plaintiff lacked the financial savvy to administer the estate.
The probate court ordered that the parties be appointed as co-personal representatives of Tiana’s estate. “If the parties find that that’s not reasonable or that’s not doable, for whatever reason they can’t agree and the case still needs to proceed forward, then it will be up to the parents either to agree on a neutral or to petition this Court to appoint a neutral if you can’t agree on one,” the probate court stated.
The probate court later denied the plaintiff’s request to reconsider the order. The probate court explained that it appointed the parties as co-personal representatives because they held “strong animosity towards each other” and it “was not convinced that either of them individually could objectively and fairly administer the estate.”
On appeal, the plaintiff asserted that the probate court abused its discretion in appointing co-personal representatives. Addressing this argument, the Court of Appeals explained that EPIC – specifically MCL 700.3414 – provides that interested persons may petition the probate court for a formal determination of the priority or qualification of a prospective personal representative.
Moreover, the Court of Appeals noted, MCL 700.3203 says that personal representatives are generally appointed in the following order of priority:
(a) The person with priority as determined by a probated will including a person nominated by a power conferred in a will.
(b) The decedent’s surviving spouse if the spouse is a devisee of the decedent.
(c) Other devisees of the decedent.
(d) The decedent’s surviving spouse.
(e) Other heirs of the decedent.
When an interested person objects to the appointment of a personal representative, that person has the burden of establishing the unsuitability of the prospective personal representative, the Court of Appeals explained. “An individual is unsuited to serve as personal representative when, inter alia, their appointment is not in the best interests of the estate.”
Here, the probate court held that each party was unsuited to individually serve as personal representative because neither could be trusted to represent the interests of the other. According to the Court of Appeals, the probate court tried to remedy this problem by appointing the plaintiff and the defendant as co-personal representatives, which meant they would have to agree on decisions affecting Tiana’s estate.
“Trial courts may, however, only appoint co-personal representatives if the intended parties agree to the shared status,” the Court of Appeals said, citing MCL 700.3203(3). That statute says: “If 2 or more persons share a priority, those of them who do not renounce shall concur in nominating another to act for them or in applying for appointment.”
The parties in this case conceded that neither had priority to be appointed personal representative – yet neither agreed to renounce their priority – and the plaintiff did not agree to serve in a shared capacity with the defendant, the Court of Appeals observed. Therefore, the probate court was precluded from appointing the parties as co-personal representatives.
“Having reviewed the record in this case, we agree with the trial court that neither party was suited to individually administer the estate,” the Court of Appeals concluded. “Accordingly, because no other person with priority stepped forward to seek appointment, the trial court was obligated to appoint a third person to serve as the personal representative of the estate.”
The September 4, 2019 oral arguments before the Court of Appeals can be heard here.