Client Alerts

Ulmer Prevails on Behalf of Client in Precedent-Setting Ohio Supreme Court Case Wilson v. Lawrence

By: Daniela Paez and James A. Goldsmith

About: Trusts & Estates, Complex Business Litigation

Representing William Lawrence, the executor of the Estate of Joseph T. Gorman, Ulmer attorneys Daniela Paez and James A. Goldsmith prevailed before the Ohio Supreme Court in Wilson v. Lawrence, a case that clarifies the strict requirements for the presentation of claims against a decedent’s estate. The ruling is important for creditors, executors and administrators of estates, and the lawyers who represent them.

The Takeaway: What Clients Need to Know
The Ohio Supreme Court, in a 6-1 decision, held that the mandate in Ohio Rev. Code 2117.06(A)(1)(a) is unambiguous and requires that creditors “present” their claims against a decedent’s estate directly to the court-appointed executor or administrator of the estate “in writing” within six months of the decedent’s death. Creditors cannot present their claims to someone else, not appointed as executor, in the hopes that the claim will be forwarded.

In her majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor explained the Court’s holding as follows:

“[A] claim against an estate must be timely presented in writing to the executor or administrator of the estate in order to meet the mandatory requirements of RC 2117.06(A)(1)(a), and under that subdivision, delivery of the claim to a person not appointed by the probate court who gives it to the executor or administrator fails to present a claim against the estate.”

(See, slip opinion. Emphasis added.) The Court’s strict enforcement of the unambiguous statute provides a clear rule of law that creditors, executors, and courts can follow. It also means that straying from the statute’s clearly defined procedure will result in improperly filed, untimely claims.

The Background: A Case Study for Future Claims
The case dealt with a claim that a creditor, James A. Wilson, attempted to present against the estate of Joseph T. Gorman. Mr. Gorman died in January of 2013 and, at the time of his death, owed Wilson a debt pursuant to contract. In July 2013, the Cuyahoga County Probate Court opened Gorman’s estate and appointed William Lawrence as the executor. In July 2013, Wilson’s attorney sent one letter in an attempt to present the claim. The letter was addressed to Mr. Gorman’s personal assistant and the trustee of Mr. Gorman’s trust.

Although it was addressed only to Mr. Gorman’s assistant and the trustee, the letter purported to present Wilson’s breach of contract claim against Gorman’s estate and even cited the applicable statute, Rev. Code 2117.06(A)(1)(a). Critically, however, Wilson did not send the letter directly to Lawrence or to the estate’s attorney, James A. Goldsmith. He failed to do so because he had not identified Lawrence as executor or Goldsmith as the estate’s attorney. Prior to the six month deadline, the letter made its way to the executor. The estate rejected the claim because Wilson failed to timely present his claim directly to the executor as required by the statute.

In November 2013, Wilson filed suit against Lawrence as executor of Gorman’s estate, arguing that he timely presented the claim. Cuyahoga County Judge Janet Burnside granted summary judgment to the estate, holding that the letter was legally deficient because it was sent to “two individuals who were not in fact personal representatives of the decedent’s estate.” On appeal, the Eighth District reversed, saying that Ohio law permits a claim to be “deemed presented” when individuals other than the executor receive the claim and forward it. The Eighth District’s accepted the “softened” standard of presentment argued for by Wilson. The estate appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted review of the case because it presented a question of public or great general interest.