For those of us who handle estate and trust disputes, it is a familiar maxim that only a personal representative (i.e., an executor, administrator, or curator) may sue on behalf of an estate. An estate beneficiary lacks standing to do so. But what sorts of claims belong to an estate? Obviously, a claim for injury to an estate after the decedent dies is an estate claim. For example, if someone steals money from an estate's bank account, only the personal representative can sue to get it back or recover damages.
But there is a another category of claims that belong to an estate and, therefore, may only be brought by the estate's personal representative. Broadly speaking, we refer to them as "survival" claims. They are claims that existed in a person's favor before they died. Under Virginia law, any claim someone had during their lifetime survives their death and passes to their estate.
In its recent published order in Platt v. Griffith, the Supreme Court of Virginia addressed several claims asserted by two individuals claiming to be "vested beneficiaries" of an estate. Finding that the claims "would have belonged to" the decedent "during his lifetime," the Court held that the beneficiaries lacked standing to bring them.
Platt involved the Estate of Dr. Lloyd Tayloe Griffith, a family doctor in Westmoreland County. In 2010, Dr. Griffith executed a will leaving each of his daughters, Mary and Lindsay, a 20-acre piece of his 704-acre farm. The remainder of his property, including the rest of the farm, all of his personal property, and a 55-acre estate in Westmoreland County went to his son, Charles, and his second wife, Mary Cate.
In 2014, Dr. Griffith exectued a chattel deed conveying the personal property on his farm and in his house in Richmond to Mary Cate. Then, in 2016, six months before he died, Dr. Griffith executed a deed of gift giving his entire farm to Charles, but reserving life rights in the farm for Mary Cate. The deed of gift did not mention the two 20-acre parcels Dr. Griffith's will left to Mary and Lindsay.
Dr. Griffith's Daughters File Suit
As one might imagine, Mary and Lindsay were not happy about losing their inheritance. The daughters sued Charles and Mary Cate, alleging that they conspired to convert $13 million of Dr. Griffith's assets and used their confidential relationship with Dr. Griffith to unduly influence him into signing the chattel deed and the deed of gift. Accordingly, they sought a declaration that the deeds were void.
The problem: Neither Mary nor Lindsay was the personal representative of Dr. Griffith's Estate. Charles was. So Charles and Mary Cate moved to dismiss the daughters' suit, arguing that they lacked standing. The circuit court agreed, and the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the circuit court's decision. The events at issue, including the inter vivos transfers of real and personal property made via the chattel deed and deed of gift, occurred during Dr. Griffith's lifetime. Therefore, the claims belonged to Dr. Griffith. When he died, those claims passed to his estate, and they could only be brought by Dr. Griffith's personal representative.
Two Unsuccessful Arguments
In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court explicitly rejected two arguments Dr. Griffith's daughters made in support of their position that they had standing. First, the daughters claimed that they had standing because their interest in the real property "vested" upon Dr. Griffith's death. Because they were vested beneficiaries, the daughters argued, they had standing to sue.
As discussed above, however, whether their interest has "vested" or not, a beneficiary lacks standing to sue on behalf of an estate. But here, the daughters were actually not vested beneficiaries of Dr. Griffith's estate. True, Dr. Griffith's will left them 20-acre parcels from the farm. But then, Dr. Griffith conveyed the entire farm to Charles and Mary Cate before he died. When a person disposes of property mentioned in a will before they die, that devise is subject to "ademption by extinction." If a testator no longer owns property at the time of his death, he cannot leave it to anyone, and any mention of the property in his will is effectively void.
Second, the daughters argued that it was unreasonable to apply the rule that only a personal representative can sue on behalf of an estate in this case, because the personal representative here was one of the people accused of wrongdoing. Obviously, Charles wouldn't sue himself for his own misconduct. Fair enough, but the daughters never sought to remove Charles as personal representative. That, the Court suggests, would have been the proper route for them to take. Because as long as Charles remains as personal representative of Dr. Griffith's estate, he is the only person with standing to pursue claims like the ones Dr. Griffith's daughters tried to assert.