Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Distribution of $9 Million Estate to Unrelated Individuals

Audrey Mivelaz had $9 million in assets and no estate plan, no testamentary capacity and no known heirs. However, she had several close, loving friends who knew her for decades and helped care for her as she sank into dementia. After an unsuccessful search for heirs, the plenary guardian of her estate after her guardianship was established and received authority from a Cook County judge to deviate from the intestacy statute by creating a trust and will that benefited the friends and several charities. However, ten supposed heirs surfaced after Mivelaz died.

The principal question in this case for the Illinois Appellate Court was the alleged heirs, who challenged the estate-plan order, arguing that it was void because they weren’t notified of the proceeding. Further, the alleged heirs argued that the guardianship judge no longer had subject matter jurisdiction based on the Illinois Supreme Court case of In re Estate of Gebis, 186 Ill.2d 188 (1999).

Although the Illinois Appellate Court concluded that the guardianship court had constitutional authority to adjudicate the alleged heirs’ attack on the trust and will, the First District affirmed because (1) the guardian conducted a reasonably thorough search for relatives and heirs and (2) unknown heirs received adequate notification by publication and service on the Cook County State’s Attorney.

The opinion by the Illinois Appellate Court First District was written by Justice Cynthia Y. Cobbs.

Petitioners argued that the courts in reliance on In re Estate of Gebis incorrectly determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate petitioners’ claims. In Gebis, the Illinois Supreme Court determined whether the court had subject matter jurisdiction in the guardianship estate for a disabled person after the ward died. There, a son and daughter were appointed co-guardians of their mother, who was adjudicated disabled.

After their mother passed away, the son filed a statutory custodial claim in the guardianship estate requesting compensation for her care. The estate moved to dismiss; the trial court granted the motion, holding that the statutory provision relied upon by the son was unconstitutional.

On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court, sua sponte, considered “whether the trial court possessed subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the son’s statutory custodial claim.” Finding jurisdiction to be lacking, the court noted the general rule that “upon the ward’s death, both the guardianship and the trial court’s jurisdiction to supervise the ward’s estate necessarily terminate.”

The Gebis court reasoned that although the legislature may not limit the circuit court’s original jurisdiction to hear a justiciable matter, it may create a justiciable matter by creating rights or duties that have no counterpart in law or equity.

The court went on to state that in this circumstance, although the circuit court’s original jurisdiction to adjudicate the matter derived from the constitution, the justiciable matter itself was defined by the legislature.  Further, the court opined, “the legislator may define the ‘judiciable matter’ in such a way as to limit or preclude the circuit court’s authority.”

“When the circuit court’s power to act is controlled by statute, the circuit court is governed by the rules of limited jurisdiction” and must proceed within the parameters of the statute. Accordingly, “once a disabled person dies, the guardianship terminates and the court’s supervising the guardianship estate loses jurisdiction to adjudicate a claim filed against that estate. The decedent’s estate is the only avenue for recovery.”

Following Gebis, the Illinois Supreme Court cited Steinbracher v. Steinbracher, 192 Ill.2d 514 (2001), a case involving the sale of property under the Illinois Partition Act. What is relevant in this case is that the Steinbracher court discussed the importance of the 1964 amendments to the Illinois Constitution as it relates to the source and the scope of the court’s jurisdiction.

What’s relevant here is that the petitioners alleged that the court’s trust order was void for lack of jurisdiction because they were necessary parties and had not been given notice of the motion to create the trust-will. The trial court agreed and held that because the petitioners as beneficiaries of the trust, were necessary parties, they were entitled to notice. The failure to notify them rendered the circuit court’s order void for lack of jurisdiction over all the necessary parties.

The respondents relying on Gebis argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to vacate its order because the decedent had passed away and the court lost its jurisdiction to supervise the guardianship estate.

It was noted by the court that when the ward died, the guardianship’s court’s jurisdiction was confined to supervising the preservation of the estate until a will was admitted to probate or letters of administration issued.  Thereafter, any claims for money or bequest from the estate had to be filed against the estate. The court found that the claim at issue (motion to vacate and agreed order) was not a claim against the estate for money or bequest.  Rather, it was an assertion of jurisdictional error by the court and thus, “well within the purview of the guardianship court to grant.”

In this case, petitioners’ case was premised on their lack of notice of the proceedings. As such, as in other Illinois case law, petitioners’ claim is not a claim against the estate but rather an assertion of jurisdictional error by the court.  Further, the relief requested by the petitioners was within the purview of the circuit court to grant.

Accordingly, the Illinois Appellate Court held that the trial court had jurisdiction to vacate its order. The plenary guardian served the estate plan petition on the Cook County State’s Attorney on behalf of unknown heirs and notified Audrey’s unknown heirs of the pending estate plan proceedings by way of publication.  Contrary to petitioners’ assertion, notice was given to petitioners who were not ascertainable at that time. As such, the Illinois Appellate Court found that the petitioners received notice and there were no due process violations. Thus, the estate plan created was affirmed.

In re Estate of Mivelaz, 2021 IL App 200494 (Aug. 3, 2021).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling probate litigation, guardianships, Illinois appeals and civil court jury trials for individuals, families and businesses for more than 45 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Arlington Heights, Bensenville, Clarendon Hills, Darien, Elmhurst, Franklin Park, Hinsdale, Downers Grove, Rosemont, Morton Grove, Niles, Des Plaines, Chicago (Rogers Park, North Lawndale, Wrigleyville, Chinatown, Hegewisch, East Side, Albany Park, Little Village, Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Washington Park, Gage Park, Lower West Side, West Loop, Humboldt Park), Elmwood Park, River Grove, Berkeley, Hillside, Maywood, North Riverside and Westchester, Illinois.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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