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Probate Court must make findings of fact and conclusions of law when requested

In the Estate of T.M.N. (Ga. Ct. App. 6/13/2022), Quanda Jessie served as conservator of her minor child’s estate and had done so since 2016. The primary asset in the conservatorship estate was a wrongful death recovery, although Social Security survivor’s benefits were also paid to the child.

Jessie updated the asset management plan and annual returns and, in 2020, requested leave to spend monthly Social Security income and interest income on the estate’s investment account for T.M.N.’s care, support, health and education. In a single-page order, the Probate Court rejected the plan, stating the plan was not approved because Jessie wants to use T.M.N.’s assets to pay obligations imposed by law upon T.M.N.’s parents. After taking judicial notice that Social Security benefits were designed to offset the loss of a deceased parent’s income, the Court ordered Jessie to use those benefits to first pay bills directly associated with the conservatorship such as attorney’s fees, bond, and commissions due to the conservator. The Court order stated Jessie could not use any other estate assets without Court permission.

On November 19, 2020, Jessie filed a motion for reconsideration and a request for findings of fact and conclusions of law. The following day the Court scheduled a hearing for January 11, 2021. On November 24, 2020, Jessie filed a timely notice of appeal.

In January 2021, the Probate Court entered an order approving the plan for use of social security benefits to pay T. M. N.’s current needs of food,  clothing, shelter, utilities, dental and medical care, and other personal items, as well as expenses associated with the conservatorship. The probate court further approved the plan for the use of investment income and interest to pay for expenses of the conservatorship only. Jessie filed a second notice of appeal.

Jessie argued, and the Court of Appeals found, that the Probate Court had no jurisdiction to enter the January 2021 order.

“A notice of appeal divests the trial court of jurisdiction to supplement, amend, alter, or modify the judgment while the appeal of that judgment remains pending.” Accordingly, we vacate and set aside the January 2021 order as a nullity.

Jessie also argued the October 2020 order she appealed was not supported with findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Court of Appeals found that a lack of mandatory written findings overcomes the presumption of regularity. Because appellate review of the October 2020 order is impossible and Jessie timely petitioned the trial court pursuant to OCGA § 9-11-52 to provide the essential findings of fact and conclusions of law necessary to enable appellate review, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case with direction that the trial court grant Jessie’s motion for findings of fact and conclusions of law and supplement its current order with findings which will allow meaningful appellate review of the decision.

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