Klenk Law

Correctly Timing Discovery in Pennsylvania’s Orphans’ Court

Posted on Mon Jun 30, 2014, on Estate Litigation

Whenever a fiduciary files an Orphans’ Court Accounting, whether the filing is by an Agent under a Power of Attorney, a Trustee of a Trust or the Executor of an Estate, a person interested in that accounting has a handicap. The person filing the accounting has all the information; the beneficiary has only what the fiduciary has given them.

Interested persons do have a right to object to an accounting, but if, for example, the beneficiary does not have access to the bank statements, how exactly does the beneficiary know if the charges reflected on the accounting are accurate?

Typically, the fiduciary will provide all this information voluntarily to the beneficiary’s estate litigation attorney, but sometimes they do not. When this happens, how does the beneficiary procedurally obtain the records and information they need to accurately object to the accounting?

I find that when explaining legal matters, following the actual facts of an actual case can help understand how the law works. Though I could give you a general outline of the Orphan’s Court Rules on discovery, I think you will find it easier to understand if the rules are applied to a set of real facts. In this example, I will use the case, Robinson Estate, decided upon by the Orphans’ Court Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County.

The issue before the court was whether or not to grant the Petition to Compel Discovery Answers.

Factual Background:

  • BR died. During his lifetime, RG served as his Agent under a Power of Attorney.
  • RR filed BR’s will and began serving as Executor of the estate of BR.
  • RR filed a Petition to force RG to Account, and to distribute real property claimed to be part of the probate estate.
  • RG filed an accounting with the Monroe County Orphans’ Court.
  • A year passed without anyone filing objections to RG’s accounting.
  • RR reviewed the accounting, but before filing objections he wanted to do discovery in order to focus his objections.
  • He sent to RG a set of Interrogatories and Request for Documents.
  • RG would not respond to the interrogatories.
  • BR, filed the Petition to Compel Discovery Answers, hoping the judge would allow discovery. BR is therefore the “petitioner”, RG is the “respondent”.

Respondent’s Legal Arguments: RG argued that discovery is not appropriate at this point in the accounting process because there have not been any objections to his accounting filed. If there is not yet a dispute, how can the court order him to turn over documents? RR filed a petition to account and RG filed an account. RG reasons that he satisfied everything that RR had requested, so until RR objects to his accounting, there is no dispute, so no discovery is allowed under the Orphans’ Court Rules.

How the Judge Reasoned:

  • First, the judge noted that RR’s petition was not limited to requesting that RG account, it also requested the return of certain real property to the probate estate.
  • The judge then explained the applicable procedural rules:
  • The Orphans’ Court is able to prescribe the practice relating to discovery on matters before it.
  • Rule 3.6 of the Supreme Court Orphans’ Court Rules also permits the local Orphans’ Court to prescribe the discovery practice, and unless otherwise prescribed by local rule, discovery shall conform to the civil division practice.
  • In Monroe County, there is no local Orphans’ Court Rule specific to discovery (therefore, Rule 3.6 says the court should conform to the civil division practice).
  • The judge then found that it is common practice to allow pre-complaint discovery in certain situations in the Civil Court.

How the Judge Ruled:

  • After finding that pre-complaint discovery is comparative to pre-objection discovery, the judge reasoned that it would be helpful to the petitioner to have discovery prior to filing objections to the accounting. Potentially, the discovery would help “clarify and narrow the scope of the matters to be objected to by him.”
  • The Petition to Compel Discovery Answers was Granted, and GR was ordered to answer RR’s First set of Interrogatories and Request for Documents.

Conclusion:

Orphans’ Court procedures have been developed over generations and though there a reason exists for each rule, they are not always intuitive. Hopefully, this dissection of a real Orphans’ Court Case dealing with the Orphans’ Court Rules on discovery was helpful in explaining the subtle rules that a judge will apply.

If you have further questions, feel free to contact me. Wills, Trusts and Estates, Its’ All We Do!

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Pennsylvania

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