Re-Opening Estate Decided Under Manifest Weight Standard

Kathleen Savio’s death in 2003 first was ruled by the coroner to be an accident. But after her body was exhumed and additional autopsies conducted in 2007, the coroner ruled that Kathleen’s death likely was a homicide. Kathleen’s father and siblings then asked the court to reopen Kathleen’s estate, to have the executor removed, and to name the father and one of the siblings as new executors. The trial court granted that request.

Kathleen’s former husband, Drew Peterson, and the executor, James Carroll, appealed. The parties argued over the proper standard of appellate review. Peterson and Carroll asserted that the trial court’s ruling should get no deference on appeal.

But the Third District Illinois Appellate Court sided with the father and sibling, and ruled that the proper standard of review of an order to reopen an estate is “the manifest weight of the evidence.” Here’s the court’s analysis:

Peterson and Carrol argue that a de novo standard of review should be applied because this issue involves a question of statutory interpretation … and because the trial court’s ruling was not the result of an evidentiary hearing. Savio’s father and siblings, on the other hand, argue that a manifest weight of the evidence standard is appropriate and cite general case law regarding the removal of an executor to support that conclusion … Although we have reviewed the case law in this area, we have found no clear statement of the standard of review that should be applied to a trial court’s decision on a petition to reopen a decedent’s estate. We note, however, that contrary to the argument of Peterson and Carrol, the issue before this court in the present case does not involve an interpretation of the probate law in Illinois. Rather, the issue involves the application of that law to the facts of the present case and a factual determination of whether the possible wrongful death claim is a newly discovered asset … Therefore, we will apply a manifest weight of the evidence standard of review to this issue and will not reverse the trial court’s decision on this issue unless it is against the manifest weight of the evidence. A trial court’s ruling is against the manifest weight of the evidence only if it is unreasonable, arbitrary and not based on evidence, or when the opposite conclusion is clearly evident from the record …

In the end, the trial court’s ruling was affirmed. Read the whole opinion, In re Estate of Savio, No. 3-08-0294 (2/4/09), by clicking here.

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