Submitted: May 20, 2013.
Draft Report Issued: October 15, 2013.
Charles Gruver, III, Esquire, 724 Yorklyn Road, Suite 315, Hockessin, DE 19707, Attorney for Personal Representative.
Leonard Rich, Jr., Pro Se Exceptant.
Marie A. Hannibal, Pro Se Exceptant.
Bernard K. Rich, Pro Se Exceptant.
Lenora C. Jones, Pro Se Exceptant.
PRO HAC VICE MASTER'S REPORT (EXCEPTIONS TO ACCOUNTING)
POPPITI, Master Pro Hac Vice.
Pursuant to Chancery Court Rule 144(a)(1), this is the report on the exceptions to the final accounting, as filed collectively by four beneficiaries of the estate. Upon review of the documentary and testimonial evidence presented at the one-day hearing convened on May 20, 2013, all but one of the exceptions are dismissed. For the reasons set forth herein, a limousine expense incurred five years after the decedent's death is disallowed. Combined with other corrected calculations, this report concludes that the Administratrix shall return $845.02 to the estate account and distribute same to the heirs.
This matter comes before the Court, pursuant to 12 Del.C. § 2302(b), through exceptions taken by four of the decedent's children, Leonard Rich, Jr., Marie A. Hannibal, Bernard K. Rich, and Lenora C. Jones (collectively "the Exceptants"), against the accounting filed by the personal representative, Linda Gussoff ("the Administratrix"), in the estate of Leonard Rich ("the Decedent"). The Decedent died intestate on March 17, 2007, and the Kent County Register of Wills issued Letters of Administration to Linda Gusoff, the Decedent's daughter.
II. Jurisdiction, Burdens of Proof, and Scope of Review
Upon the filing of exceptions to an accounting, the Delaware Constitution provides that when exceptions are heard by the Court, "the account shall be adjusted and settled according to the right of the matter and the law of the land." Chancery Court Rule 198 prescribes the following procedural framework for allocating the respective burdens of proof: "At the hearing of exceptions the personal representative shall first be heard upon the exceptions taken; then the exceptant shall be heard, and the personal representative shall be heard in rebuttal." The personal representative bears the initial burden of proof in responding to exceptions to an account. More specifically, the personal representative bears the initial burden of demonstrating that the account was properly prepared.
The final accounting of the Decedent's estate was admitted into evidence. As noted during the hearing, the accounting contains a certification by the Kent County Chief Deputy Register of Wills, attesting that she has "examined the foregoing account, tried the calculations and additions, compared the vouchers and [found] the same to be correctly adjusted and settled." Consequently, pursuant to Delaware Rule of Evidence 202(d)(1)(b), the Court takes judicial notice that the personal representative has provided sufficient documentation of all deductions set forth in the final accounting. This practice is consistent with In re Estate of England,  wherein then-Master Kiger took judicial notice of the contents of the underlying estate file, which in that case confirmed that the accounting of the estate was audited by the Register of Wills (through an assigned deputy) and that vouchers supporting the debts listed thereon had been verified.
Accordingly, the scope of this Court's review will be limited to whether the expenses on the accounting were properly deducted when calculating the net personal estate to be distributed to the heirs.
III. Nature and Stage of the Proceedings
A. Summary of Issues Derived from Pleadings
The Exceptants filed exceptions on June 26, 2012, wherein they objected to the following six entries on the accounting: (1) a $600 fee for bookkeeping services; (2) the Decedent's pension repayment in the amount of $13, 330.98; (2) the amount of $7, 102.84 for cleaning, repairs, and removal of items from the Decedent's property; (4) the funeral expense in the amount of $20, 850.00; (5) attorney's fees in the amount of $4, 100.00; and (6) calculation and distribution of the balance remaining in the hands of the personal representative in the amount of $4, 695.02.
B. Redefined Scope of Dispute to be Resolved
Mediation of the exceptions was conducted on April 1, 2013, at which time the parties resolved the dispute over the $600 fee for bookkeeping services, leaving the Court to rule upon the five remaining issues cited above.
At the beginning of the hearing convened on May 20, 2013, the parties were given one last opportunity to confer and resolve those five remaining disputes. That conference led to resolution of the following two issues: (1) the pension repayment in the amount of $13, 330.98[ ...