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Declaratory Judgment Denying All Future Claims by Non-Parties Exceeded Court’s Authority

In Walker v. Richmond (Ga. Ct. App. 3/1/2022), a Tennessee probate case crossed into Georgia in the context of a declaratory judgment action, a default judgment and a motion to set aside the default.

Alfonso Patton, a Tennessee resident, was under a Tennessee conservatorship. After Patton died in 2013, his only biological child, Patricia Richmond, presented a Will for probate naming her as Patton’s beneficiary. It was rejected as the product of undue influence. Although the decision does not identify the relationship between Patton and Gloria Walker, a Will naming Walker as Patton’s beneficiary was admitted for probate.

Prior to Patton’s death, Richmond used a power of attorney to transfer assets out of Patton’s accounts into joint accounts. She then used funds from the accoutns to purchase two homes, including one in Cobb County, Georgia. Patton’s conservator brought an action against Richmond for breach of fiduciary duty, seeking to recover damages against Richmond and her husband. This resulted in a $916,616 judgment against Richmond and her husband. The judgment purported to assign payments under a mortgage on the Cobb County property (which had been sold to Richmond’s daughter) to the estate.

While the Tennessee proceeding continued, Richmond filed a declaratory judgment action against Walker relating to the Cobb County property. Richmond sought to forever terminate Walker’s rights in the Cobb County property and the mortgage. When the petition went into default, the Cobb County Court entered an order providing:

Defendant Walker has no valid legal interest in the [Cobb County] property[.] . . . Moreover, any filings made into the Clerk of Court’s record and DEED BOOK by Defendant Walker or purportedly on behalf of Defendant Walker by her attorney-in-fact are null and void. The Court hereby terminates any and all interest asserted by Defendant Walker, her spouse, heirs, devisees, successors, assigns and anyone or anything in the whole world claiming under her, irrespective of the nature of such claim, in and to the [Cobb County] property[.] . . . Any future claims of Defendant Walker, her spouse, heirs, devisees, successors, assigns and anyone or anything in the whole world claiming under her, irrespective of the nature of such claims, in and to the above described named real property are barred.

The Cobb County order was entered July 2, 2018. Subsequently, in 2019, the Tennessee Court entered its final Order. In September 2020, Walker hired counsel and sought to open the default on various grounds including lack of jurisdiction and that the Order exceeded the relief requested in the Petition. The court denied her motion and she appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed. The purpose of a declaratory judgment action is to declare the rights of parties to an actual controversy. At the tiem the declaratory judgment was issued, Walker’s rights were contingent, not ripening until entry of the Tennessee Court’s final Order in 2019. Likewise, by barring all future claims byWalker, her spouse “or anyone or anything in the whole world,” the Cobb County order purported to declare the rights of persons who were not parties to the declaratory judgment action. For those reasons, there was a nonamendable defect on the face of the record, the trial court’s default judgment was improperly granted and the motion to set aside the default should have been granted.

Of note, prior to entry of the 2018 Order, Akeem Jacob-Ben, attempted to respond for Walker alleging authority under a power of attorney. The Court of Appeals cited In re Estate of Wheeler, 349 Ga. App. 716 (2019), noting that a power of attorney does not give a layperson authority to represent another in a court of law.

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