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Probate Court had jurisdiction to construe consent order in the context of Petition to Settle Accounts

On February 24, 2022, the Georgia Court of Appeals decided In re Estate of Plybon (Appeal No. A21A1740, 2/24/2022). There, executrix Dorothy Johnson appealed from a Douglas County Probate Court order which construed the meaning of a 2013 Superior Court consent order in the context of  a Petition for accounting and Final Settlement of Accounts. The Petition was brought by Mary Marvel.

On appeal, Johnson argued the Probate Court lack jurisdiction to construe the consent order. Her position was that the Superior Court, not the probate court, had jurisdiction to construe and enforce the consent order. The probate court rejected that arguement below and found that Marvel was entitled to one-third of the proceeds from the estate’s real property, lesss expenses, and $80,000. The court then ordered Johnson to file an acounting of the proceeds from the sale of real property.

Jurisdiction and the construction of contracts are reviewed de novo. On appeal, the Court found that O.C.G.A. § 53-7-63 empowers the probate court to proceed to make an account, hear evidence upon any contested question, and make a final settlement between the personal representative and the heirs or beneficiaries.

With respect to areas in which the probate court has been given exclusive, original subject matter jurisdiction, its authority is broad. The probate court can order an accounting, remove executors or require they post additional security, or issue such other order as in the probate court’s judgment is appropriate under the circumstances of the case[.]

The Court of Appeals found that the probate court had authority, in the context of a petition for settlement of accounts, to construe the meaning of the consent order. Further, since it was undisputed that the property was sold prior to the Petition to Settle Acounts, the probate court was not determining title to the realty. It was simply determining how the proceeds should be distributed.

Johnson also argued that in construing the consent order, the probate court erred. She argued that Marvel’s interest in the proceeds was limited to the land’s appraised value. The Court included the language of the consent order in its decision and found no such limitation.

“A consent order is essentially a binding agreement of the parties that is sanctioned by a court, and it is subject to the rules governing the interpretation and enforcement of contracts.” Thus, “where the language of a contract is plain and unambiguous, no construction is required or permissible and the terms of the contract must be given an interpretation of ordinary significance.””[A] word or phrase is ambiguous when its meaning is uncertain and it may be fairly understood in more ways than one.”

The Court of Appeals found the provision granting Marvel a one-third interest in the proceeds was unambiguous and, thus, the probate court properly rejected Johnson’s attempt to introduce parol evidence.

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