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Ray v. Stevens

Supreme Court of Georgia

October 20, 2014

RAY et al.
v.
STEVENS

Wills. Jones Superior Court. Before Judge Brown.

Thomas F. Jarriel, for appellants.

Richard A. Epps, Sr., for appellee.

HUNSTEIN, Justice. All the Justices concur.

OPINION

Page 810

Hunstein, Justice.

In this case we must determine whether the brother of a decedent had standing to offer the decedent's will for probate pursuant to OCGA § 53-5-2. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that the brother, Propounder Thomas Arthur Stevens, did not have standing to offer the will for probate because he was not an " interested person" as required by OCGA § 53-5-2. Accordingly, we reverse.

On or about August 28, 2008, decedent Grady Williams Stevens was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was given approximately four weeks to live. He began a strenuous regimen of pain medications to provide him relief during his last weeks, and his daughter, Sherry S. Ray, began caring for him at her home. On September 17, 2008, the decedent signed a will naming Ray as executrix and sole beneficiary and signed two deeds conveying certain real property to Propounder Stevens and his sister. On October 7, 2008, the decedent died. The attorney who had prepared the decedent's will and the two deeds subsequently filed the will with the probate court.

[295 Ga. 896] Ray never submitted the will for probate because she believed it to be the result of Propounder's undue influence over her father, that her father lacked the requisite mental capacity to understand what he was signing, and that her father would have wanted his estate, including the property he conveyed by the two deeds he signed before his death, to pass equally to her and her only sibling, Shane Stevens. Approximately nine months after the decedent died, Propounder submitted the will for probate and sought appointment as administrator of the estate by submitting a " Petition to Probate Will in Solemn Form and For Letters of Administration With Will Annexed." Ray and Shane Stevens filed caveats to the petition. Caveators claimed that Propounder Stevens exerted a predominant and undue influence on their father to induce him to sign the will and deeds and that their father lacked testamentary capacity at the time he signed the will because he was heavily medicated and possessed insufficient mental capacity.[1]

After a hearing, the probate court issued an order denying Propounder's petition to probate, finding that the decedent lacked testamentary capacity. Propounder thereafter appealed to the superior court.[2] The superior court denied Caveators' motion for summary judgment, finding that genuine issues of fact remained. Caveators then filed a motion to dismiss, contending that Propounder lacked standing to probate the will, which the court denied. After a bench trial, the court issued an order finding that the will was valid, the decedent did not lack testamentary capacity, and Propounder did not exert an undue influence over the decedent. After the court denied their motion for new trial, Caveators appealed to this Court, arguing, inter alia, that the court erred by denying their motion to dismiss for lack of standing.

Section 53-5-2 of Georgia's Probate Code states as follows:

The right to offer a will for probate shall belong to the executor, if one is named. If for any reason the executor fails to offer the will for probate with reasonable promptness, or if no executor is named, any interested person may offer the will for probate.

[295 Ga. 897] It is undisputed that Propounder is not the named executor in the decedent's will. Thus, the question is whether Propounder is an " interested person" who may offer the will for probate. See id. This term is not specifically defined in our Probate Code.

The requirement that one who offers a will for probate be an " interested person" can be traced in Georgia case law to at least as early as 1853 in Finch v. Finch, 14 Ga. 362 (1853). In that case, a legatee under the will at issue propounded the same for probate. Id. at 362. The caveators objected on the ground, inter alia, ...


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