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Declaratory Judgment Vacated Because It Would Have No Immediate Effect on the Parties’ Conduct

On March 15, 2022, the Georgia Court of Appeals decided Willis v. Cheeley (A21A1730). There, a contested probate proceeding boiled over into the Superior Court of Gwinnett County where Appellee Joseph E. Cheeley III secured a declaratory judgment against Appellant William Joseph Willis. The Court of Appeals held the declaratory judgment was improperly granted because there was no actual controversy that would be resolved by declaratory judgment and vacated the decision below.

Cheeley was the Executor of the Estate of Joseph Elbert Cheeley, Jr., while Willis was Executor of the Estate of Dorothy Cheeley Willis. The argument centered on a deed Joseph allegedly gave Dorothy prior to his death giving Dorothy a life estate in property in Buford, Georgia. After Joseph died, Cheeley argued the deed (which had not been filed) was never delivered so Dorothy wasn’t entitled to a life estate. Willis, on the other hand, argued the deed was delivered, but that Dorothy returned it to Joseph for safekeeping. Unfortunately, Dorothy died in 2017 before the case was resolved.

The Court of Appeals found there was no actual controversy because Cheeley was in possession of the property and “the Grantee is deceased, and the parties apparently agree that the Deed conveyed, if anything, a life estate that terminated at the Grantee’s death.”

[Cheeley] failed to show that resolution of that dispute “will have a legal effect on anything.” City of Atlanta v. Atlanta Independent School System, 307 Ga. 877, 880 (838 SE2d 834) (2020) (“[T]he relief sought by a plaintiff [in a declaratory judgment action] must have some immediate legal effect on the parties’ conduct, rather than simply burning off an abstract fog of uncertainty.”)

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