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Estate of Reed

Supreme Court of Maine

June 9, 2016

ESTATE OF JEANNE S. REED

          Submitted On Briefs: April 21, 2016

          Robert C. Andrews, Esq., Portland, for appellants George P. Reed IV and Lawrence Reed

         No appellee's brief filed

          Panel SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          HUMPHREY, J.

         [¶1] George P. Reed IV and his brother, Lawrence Reed, appeal from an order of the Cumberland County Probate Court (Mazziotti, J.) dismissing without prejudice their petition for partition of the real property of their deceased mother, Jeanne S. Reed. The court determined sua sponte that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction to consider the petition because there was no open probate proceeding for the mother's estate. We agree and affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] George and Lawrence Reed's mother, Jeanne S. Reed, died on July 26, 1997. On August 29, 2013, George filed a petition for formal probate of his mother's will in the Cumberland County Probate Court. After a hearing, the court (Mazziotti, J.) denied the petition as time barred. See 18-A M.R.S. § 3-108(a) (2015) (stating that formal testacy or appointment proceedings must be commenced within three years after the decedent's death). No appeal was taken from this decision.

         [¶3] On April 30, 2014, George and Lawrence filed a petition for special findings requesting that the court determine their mother's heirs.[1] See Estate of Thorne, 1997 ME 202, ¶ 8, 704 A.2d 315 (stating that the determination of heirs "falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Probate Court and is thus a probate proceeding pursuant to M.R. Prob. P. 2"); 18-A M.R.S. § 1-302 (2015). On August 20, 2014, following a hearing, the court issued an order making findings as to Jeanne's heirs and each heir's percentage share in the estate.

         [¶4] On November 5, 2014, George and Lawrence filed a petition for the partition of real property located in the town of Gray, the only remaining asset of their mother's estate. Because fewer than all of the heirs agreed that the property should be partitioned, the brothers stated that there was "no convenient way to divide the real estate or partition without prejudice to the owners" and requested that the court direct the sale of the property.

         [¶5] Following a hearing, the court issued an order dated May 20, 2015, in which it raised sua sponte the question of whether it had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the petition. The court concluded that, because (1) its authority to partition real estate is conferred by 4 M.R.S. § 252 (2015) and 18-A M.R.S. § 3-911 (2015), (2) both statutes require that there be an open probate proceeding, and (3) a probate estate proceeding is barred in this case by the statute of limitations, it did not have subject matter jurisdiction and dismissed the petition without prejudice. George and Lawrence timely appealed to us.

         II. DISCUSSION

         [¶6] A Probate Court's subject matter jurisdiction and statutory interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo. See In re Hiller, 2014 ME 2, ¶ 19, 86 A.3d 9; Carrier v. Sec'y of State, 2012 ME 142, ¶ 12, 60 A.3d 1241. "The Probate Court is a statutory court of limited jurisdiction and its actions are void unless taken pursuant to statutory authority." Marin v. Marin, 2002 ME 88, ¶ 9, 797 A.2d 1265 (quotation marks omitted). In our review of the Probate Code, we "first look to the plain meaning of the statute, interpreting its language to avoid absurd, illogical, or inconsistent results." Carrier, 2012 ME 142, ¶ 12, 60 A.3d 1241 (quotation marks omitted). If there is ambiguity, we look beyond the statutory language to determine the legislature's intent, including the legislative history and the whole statutory scheme for which the section at issue forms a part. Id. ¶ 12; Hallissey v. Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 77, 2000 ME 143, ¶ 14, 755 A.2d 1068.

         [¶7] A Probate Court has exclusive jurisdiction over "probate proceedings." M.R. Prob. P. 2(a). Probate proceedings include "informal and formal proceedings to determine how decedents' estates subject to the laws of this State are to be administered, expended and distributed."[2] 18-A M.R.S. § 3-105 (2015). In some circumstances, a Probate Court has the authority to partition property. See 18-A M.R.S. § 3-911; 4 M.R.S. § 252; Estate of Hunt, 2010 ME 23, ¶¶ 3, 10-11, 990 A.2d 544 (holding that the Probate Court had jurisdiction to partition property when the decedent's will, submitted for informal probate, devised individual parcels that failed to conform to local zoning requirements). The Probate Court's jurisdiction to partition property is concurrent with the Superior Court and the District Court, which also have jurisdiction over civil actions seeking the partition of property. See 14 M.R.S. § 6502 (2015); 4 M.R.S. §§ 105(1), 152(5)(O)(2-A) (2015); Murphy v. Daley, 582 A.2d 1212, 1213 (Me. 1990) (per curiam).

         [¶8] We have not previously considered whether the Probate Court's concurrent jurisdiction to partition property extends to situations when a probate proceeding cannot be initiated in the Probate Court and the property that the ...


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