Clients can pick their own attorneys but they cannot pick their own facts. A recent case decided by Master Ayvazian highlights the difficulties that unfortunate facts can present.
Creditors have eight months to file a claim against an estate (see 12 Del.C. §2102(a)). After a claim is presented, the executor (or personal administrator) can pay the claim or can deny the claim. Other than failure to timely file the claim (see 12 Del.C. §2102(a)), there is no statutory justification for denial of claim. In fact, Delaware has historically held that fiduciaries owe a fiduciary duty to creditors. See In re Estate of Bennie P. Farren, Del. Ch., C.A. No. 9385-MA (June 18, 2015).
Delaware Acceptance Corporation, CACV of Colorado, LLC and 202 Investments, Inc. v. Estate of Frank C. Metzner, Sr., Lona C. Metzner, Executrix and Frank C. Metzner, Jr., the Metzner Family, LLC, C.A. No. 8861-MA involved an executor who denied a claim in the amount of $41,002.59 which had been filed against the estate by a credit card company. After four years of litigation, the Court of Chancery, Master Kim Ayvazian, found that the case hinged on the authenticity of a document, which in turn depended upon the credibility of several witnesses. The Court found that the backdating of documents and the offering of false testimony at trial rendered the Executrix unfit to serve as fiduciary and ordered her removal.
Frank C. Metzner, Sr. (“Frank , Sr.”) and his wife, Lona C. Metzner (“Lona”), deeded their house in Lewes into the Metzner Family Limited Liability Company (the “LLC”) in 2002. Frank, Sr. and Lona each held originally a fifty percent interest in the LLC but subsequently they gave two percent to their son, Frank, Jr.
In 2003, Frank, Sr. and Lona stopped paying their bills, including their credit cards, when the outstanding balance totaled approximately $55,000. Plaintiffs Delaware Acceptance Corporation CACV of Colorado, LLC and 202 Investments, Inc. (“Creditor”) sought a Charging Order based upon the Court of Common Pleas judgments that had been entered against Frank, Sr. and Lona. The Charging Order was signed on December 6, 2010 and served upon the LLC to attach to any distributions from the LLC to either Frank, Sr. or Lona. Frank, Sr. and Lona’s personal residence which was the asset of the LLC clearly did not have any income spitting out so the Charging Order laid dormant.
Subsequently Frank, Sr. died on October 26, 2012 and his Will, which was filed on December 5, 2012, named Nona as executor. The sole asset in the Estate was Frank, Sr.’s 49% interest in the LLC which was left to his son, Frank, Jr. Creditor filed its claim against the Estate on April 15, 2013. The Estate’s attorney denied the claim by letter dated June 3, 2013 on the basis that: (1) the Estate was devoid of assets other than the 49% LLC interest; (2) it was understood that the Charging Order was not dissolved by Frank, Sr.’s death; (3) Frank, Sr.’s 49% interest transferred under the Will to Frank, Jr. remained subject to the Charging Order. This was unacceptable to the Creditor.
Under the LLC Agreement (as was common in those days), the death of a member was considered a withdrawal, resulting in the dissolution of the LLC unless the surviving members elected to continue the LLC within 90 days of the death of the member. If the LLC were dissolved, 49% of the personal residence would have been distributed out to the Estate of Frank, Sr. thereby, the Executrix (faced with the Charging Order) as a fiduciary for the creditor, could have been directed to sell the house to satisfy the claim.
Within the required three month window (under 12 Del.C. 2102(b)) the Creditor filed a complaint alleging its belief that the LLC had dissolved after the death of Frank, Sr. due to the failure of the remaining members, Lona and Frank, Jr., to have consented in writing to continue the LLC within the 90 days after Frank, Sr.’s death.
In response, the Executor alleged that the remaining members (Lona and Frank, Jr.) had effectively elected to continue the LLC after Frank, Sr.’s death and proffered first a signed writing dated November 30, 2012 (the “Election”).
The Court found the Election suspect and in an effort to discern the actual date of the Election, directed the Creditor’s attorney to request the metadata relevant to the Election from the computer of the attorney who had drafted the document and/or such attorney’s former firm’s network server and to produce the data to the Court within 60 days. If the metadata was not produced, the Court would draw an adverse inference that the Election had been created after the 90-day period following Frank, Sr’s death. No metadata was ever delivered to the Court.
The attorney testified that he believed that the Election had been prepared in his office although the Election did not have certain identifiable marks (e.g. file number) that would evidence such preparation, nor was the Election-signing ceremony on the attorney’s calendar.
Undeterred, at trial Lona introduced a second document that had not previously been produced during the litigation (the “November 10th letter”). The November 10th letter (admittedly written by Lona) would have served as a sufficient writing to continue the LLC had the Court believed its provenance or if the metadata associated with the November 10th letter been provided. According to Lona’s testimony at trial, however, the computer that had generated the November 10th letter had “gone bad” a few years ago and had been disposed of.
Unfortunately for her, Lona was not a credible witness.
In concluding that Lona should be removed as Executor for cause, the Court held that a person who backdates documents and offers false testimony at trial should not be a fiduciary of an estate. The Court ordered the appointment of a new personal administrator with an order to: (1) dissolve the LLC; (2) liquidate the assets in the LLC; and (3) make disbursements to pay off the Creditor as required in the Changing Order.
First, review LLC Agreements to discern whether mandatory election is necessary and advisable and amend the LLC Agreement if appropriate. Second, only go into trial with a firm belief in the honesty of your client’s version of the facts. Otherwise, don’t let your client pick you as their attorney.
Beth B. Miller is counsel with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP, resident in its Wilmington office. She practices business, tax and trusts and estates law. You can reach Beth at (302) 622-4219 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.