4. Kaouris – Jurisdiction to Construe Written Documents
In 1991, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the Orphans’ Court had the jurisdiction to interpret a marital settlement agreement. Kaouris v. Kaouris, 324 Md. 687 (1991) is an appeal from the Orphans’ Court for Worcester County (Judges Shockley, Bowden and Leister). The Court used that case to summarize jurisdictional issues in general as related to the Orphans’ Court.
The facts in Kaouris are as follows: Mr. and Mrs. Kaouris entered into a marital settlement agreement that provided that the parties had agreed to live separate and apart and that they would (in consideration of other transfers of property) give up all rights to inherit from each other and any right or claim against the estate of the other. The parties, however, never divorced. When Mr. Kaouris died, the widow filed for her elective share and for the family allowance. The personal representative opposed these claims, asserting that the widow had waived her rights in the marital settlement agreement. The issue before the Orphans’ Court was whether the marital property agreement was an effective waiver of the widow’s right to the spousal allowance and/or elective share.
The Orphans’ Court ruled against the personal representative, concluding that “the agreement was void because the appellee and the decedent had never separated as the agreement contemplated.” Kaouris at 713. The personal representative filed an appeal directly to the Court of Special Appeals, and the Court of Special Appeals certified the jurisdictional issues to the Court of Appeals.
The basic issue in Kaouris was whether the Orphans’ Court had jurisdiction to determine the validity of the marital settlement agreement, necessary to determine whether the widow had waived certain rights in the estate or whether her waiver in that agreement was ineffective because of a material breach of the agreement by the decedent. The Court of Appeals held that the Orphans’ Court did have the right to make that determination.
The Court of Appeals held that the Orphans’ Court has jurisdiction to construe a written document if the construction of the document is necessary in order for the Orphans’ Court to carry out its express jurisdiction. Thus, the focus is not on the type of document examined but rather why the document is being examined:
“We therefore reiterate: whether the orphans’ court has the power to construe a written document, be it a release, a will, or another instrument, is dependent on what the party is asking the court to do and whether, when the court construes that document, it does so consistent with, and in furtherance of, an express grant of power.” Kaouris at 706.
Under this test, the Court of Appeals held that the Orphans Court was well within its rights to interpret whether the marital settlement agreement was an effective waiver of the elective share amount.
Interestingly, the Court of Appeals discussed and distinguished Clarke v. Clarke, 290 Md. 289 (1981), which upheld the trumping of the Orphans’ Court jurisdiction by a Circuit Court in a will construction case. In Clarke, the will directed the personal representative to pay the debts and then gave Mr. & Mrs. Ignatius Clarke “permission to farm the land for a period of five (5) years, if they so desire.” At the end of that period the farm was to be sold and divided equally among various persons. The Orphans’ Court ordered the property sold to pay debts and administrative expenses and denied Ignatius Clarke’s motion to cancel the sale. Ignatius Clarke then filed an action in the Circuit Court to enjoin the sale and have the court construe the will.
As discussed in Kaouris, a “complexity test” was applied in Clarke:
“In Clarke, while generally recognizing the power of the orphans’ court to construe wills incidental to administration and final distribution of a decedent’s estate, we also acknowledged that there are instances in which construction of a will more appropriately should be done by the circuit court…Application of the Clarke complexity test does not resolve whether, when the circuit court exercises jurisdiction in a complicated construction matter, the orphans’ court is divested of jurisdiction or is simply precluded from acting by virtue of the superior jurisdiction of the circuit court. Stated differently, does the determination that a construction matter is ‘complicated’ affect the orphans’ court’s power to resolve the issue or merely the propriety of its doing so? This issue was not directly addressed by Clarke. Nevertheless, we think it clear both from the circumstances and a fair reading of Clarke, that it affects only the propriety of the orphan’s court acting.” Kaouris at 706, 708.
In other words, the Clarke “complexity test” is not directed against the jurisdiction of the Orphans’ Court but simply whether that jurisdiction should be exercised. This approach begs two questions: (1) to what degree does the circuit court have direct jurisdiction over probate issues when the Orphans’ Court is involved – in other words, how would the Circuit Court reach in to the proceeding and get jurisdiction, and (2) can the Orphans’ Court by its own direction send something to the Circuit Court for interpretation if the Orphans’ Court believes it is overly complex and that it would be inappropriate for the Orphans’ Court to act? Generally, of course, the Circuit Court does not go looking for disputes. Instead, litigants bring the disputes to the Circuit Court by way of a complaint for injunctive relief as was the case in Clarke. If a litigant believes that the issue should be tried in the Circuit Court, there is a mechanism (framing of issues) to bring that issue before the Circuit Court. There does not appear to be, however, a mechanism for the Orphans’ Court to remove an action for determination by the Circuit Court if the Orphans’ Court so desires.
Because issues are limited to factual interpretations, to the extent the interpretation or construction of a document is a legal determination, it may not be sent to the Circuit Court on that basis. Most legal questions, however, involve an interpretation of fact – the intent of the testator or drafter, for example, for a will. Earlier cases holding that the Orphans’ Court could not construe a will based these decisions, in part, on the conclusion that interpretation is a matter of law that can only be determined by a court of equity. See Myers v. Hart, 248 Md. 443 (1968). Kaouris has “explained” these earlier decisions and shifted the emphasis away from a blanket prohibition against interpretation of documents to a determination that an interpretation of a document is appropriate if it is ancillary to the Orphans’ Court primary jurisdictional functions. Given Kaouris, it would seem that the issue of a testator’s intent may now be a factual matter that could be subject of the framing of an issue for transmittal.
The idea that the Orphans’ Court has the power to do those things necessary to implement its primary jurisdiction was also addressed in Radcliff v. Vance, 360 Md. 277 (2000). In that case, the Orphans’ Court had erroneously ordered a personal representative to pay, without notice to interested parties, a claim that would have benefited the personal representative. The Orphans’ Court was held to have acted in its jurisdiction when it later ordered the claimant to refund the money to the estate. The Court of Appeals held: “The power of the Orphans’ Court exercised in this case is comparable to an equity court’s power to order restitution in similar situations. Where a litigant has been deprived of property by order of a court, and the court is subsequently reversed, the equity court may order restitution.”