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Reeves v. Webb

Supreme Court of Georgia

June 29, 2015

REEVES et al.
v.
WEBB et al. GROENENBOOM
v.
WEBB et al

Wills. Richmond Probate Court. Before Judge James.

Troy A. Lanier, for Reeves et al.

J. Larry Broyles, for Groenenboom.

Debra M. Bryan; Chuck R. Pardue; Warlick, Tritt, Stebbins & Murray, Jennifer T. Kerr, for Webb et al.

HINES, Presiding Justice. All the Justices concur.

OPINION

Page 642

Hines, Presiding Justice.

This is a will contest in which the propounder and the beneficiaries are appealing an order of the probate court dismissing the petition to probate the will in solemn form and a subsequent order denying their motion for new trial, or in the alternative, motion to set aside judgment and enter judgment admitting the will to probate. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand.

Joseph Thomas Schmidt (" Schmidt" ) executed the will at issue (" Will" ) on July 20, 2010. Schmidt was a disabled Marine Corps veteran who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia with delusions since the early 1970s; he also had vision and hearing difficulties. He was treated as a disabled veteran and received disability benefits from the Veterans Administration (" VA" ) until his death on October 5, 2013. He was appointed a VA guardian and conservator in 1974. Dale L. Groenenboom (" Groenenboom" ) was appointed as successor guardian of Schmidt's person and property in 1976, and served in such capacity until Schmidt's death. In 1997, Schmidt entered into the personal care home owned and operated by Charles H. Reeves, Jr., and his wife, Jerry J. Reeves (" Reeveses" ), and he resided there the remainder of his life. The Reeveses were compensated monthly for their services. Groenenboom was selected to be Schmidt's guardian by the VA, and controlled Schmidt's funds, including his VA disability payments and his Social Security benefits, and he made the payments to the Reeveses for Schmidt's custodial care and monthly spending allowance. The Will named Groenenboom as executor and the Reeveses and Groenenboom as the beneficiaries.[1] In the Will, [297 Ga. 406] Judith Webb (" Webb" ), Schmidt's twin sister[2] and sole named heir at law, was expressly excluded from inheriting from Schmidt's estate.[3]

On December 6, 2013, Groenenboom filed the petition to probate the Will in solemn form (" Petition" ) and a " Petition of Conservator for Final Settlement of Accounts and Discharge from Office and Liability" (" Settlement" ). On March 18, 2014, Webb filed a motion to deny the Petition and the accompanying Settlement, as well as an objection and caveat to them, contending that Groenenboom, as guardian and conservator, and the Reeveses as custodians, breached their fiduciary duties owed to their ward, Schmidt; that they committed fraud against Schmidt and the probate court; that Schmidt was unduly influenced by them within the meaning of OCGA § 53-4-12; [4] and that Schmidt lacked testamentary capacity at the time the Will was executed.

Page 643

On June 9, 2014, the probate court entered a final order dismissing the Petition. It did so after finding that propounder Groenenboom did not " make out a prima facie case" to admit the Will to probate in that Groenenboom " failed to produce the subscribing witness [to the Will] for examination at the hearing despite the fact that they were neither shown to be deceased or inaccessible." The probate court further justified its dismissal on the basis

that propounder has failed in its burden to make a prima facie case showing that the will was properly executed, made freely and voluntarily, and that the testator had sufficient mental ...

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