The Probate Process: Appeals, Transmission of Issues and Jury Trials
Appeals of Orphans’ Court Decisions
In most venues throughout Maryland, a party in an estate looking to appeal a decision made by an Orphans’ Court has two options: file an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals or to the Circuit Court. Pursuant to Courts & Judicial Proceedings §12-501, a party in any venue may appeal to the Court of Special Appeals from a final judgment of an Orphans’ Court. When the final judgment was given or made in a summary proceeding, and on the testimony of witnesses, an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals is only permitted when the party wishing to appeal immediately gives notice of the party’s intention to appeal and requests that the testimony be reduced to writing. When this occurs, the cost of reducing the testimony to writing is incurred by the requesting party.
Except for Harford and Montgomery counties, a party may opt to appeal to the Circuit Court for the county from a final judgment of an Orphans’ Court instead of a direct appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. Appeals from the Orphans’ Court to the Circuit Court are governed by Court Courts & Judicial Proceedings §12-502. Appeals to the Circuit Court are heard de novo. The de novo appeal is treated as if it were a new proceeding and as if a prior hearing or judgment by the Orphans’ Court never occurred. The Circuit Court hears de novo appeals from the Orphans’ Court according to the equity of the matter. This option does not apply to cases arising from Harford and Montgomery counties as the Circuit Court judges in those two counties sit as Orphans’ Court judges. Appeals to the Circuit Court are initiated by filing a notice of appeal with the Register of Wills within 30 days after the date of the final judgment.
Transmission of Issues to the Circuit Court
A party in an estate matter has the right to request that issues of fact be determined by a court of law, either with or without a jury, pursuant to Estates & Trusts § 2-105 and Maryland Rule 6-434. When a request to transmit an issue of fact is made before an Orphans’ Court decision is made, the Orphans’ Court must submit the issue to a court of law. An issue may be sent to the Circuit Court for trial when (1) the Orphans’ Court has jurisdiction of the subject, (2) the question is properly before the Orphans’ Court, and (3) the issue of fact is relevant and material to the question before the Orphans’ Court.
The most common use of transmission of issues is in caveat proceedings. However, the right to submit issues to a court of law applies to any question of fact in an estate, not only caveat cases. When a request is made, either party has the right to request that the issues be framed by the Orphans’ Court before it is transmitted to the Circuit Court. Following the request to transmit issues, a plenary proceeding is held before the Orphans’ Court to determine the issues and how they should be framed. If both parties consent to the specific framing of the issues, a hearing is not required before the issues are transmitted.
By and large, the right to transmit an issue from the Orphans’ Court to a court of law, prior to the Orphans’ Court determining the issue, is mandatory and without limitation. Specifically, in caveat proceedings, an issue of fact can be transmitted at any stage of the case, as long as there has not been a final adjudication of the issues. As a practical matter, this means the Orphans’ Court is required to stop a caveat proceeding mid-hearing if one party, at any time prior to final adjudication of the issues, requests the transmission of an issue of fact to the Circuit Court. Alternatively, in non-caveat litigation matters before the Orphans’ Court, there is no requirement for the Court to stop a matter mid-hearing due to a request to transmit issues.
There are several matters which, by statute, are within the sole discretion of the Orphans’ Court. These include the granting of personal representatives’ commissions, attorneys’ fees and funeral expenses. In these matters, there is no right to transmit issues.
The right to transmit issues is available throughout all venues in Maryland, including Harford and Montgomery counties which, as noted above, are the counties where the Circuit Court judges sit as the Orphans’ Court. An order transmitting issues is a final, appealable issue. When a party requests the framing and transmitting of issues from the Orphans’ Court to the Circuit Court, a jury trial is permitted but not required. Alternatively, when a party appeals a decision to the Circuit Court for a de novo appeal on a matter that was heard in a bench trial in the Orphans’ Court, there is no right to a jury trial on that de novo appeal.
Zachary W. Worshtil is an attorney at the Law Office of Ralph W. Powers, Jr., P.C. He is also a member of the PGCBA Board of Directors and co-chair of the Probate, Estates, Trusts & Elder Law Section. He concentrates his practice primarily in estate administration and probate litigation.