IMO The Estate of Aldon S. Hall
Submitted: May 23, 2014.
Draft Report: September 22, 2014.
Richard E. Berl, Esquire.
Jason C. Powell, Esquire.
Kim E. Ayvazian Master in Chancery.
This is an estate dispute between the three adult children and second wife of Aldon S. Hall ("Mr. Hall" or "the decedent"), who died on January 21, 2012. Petitioners Anthony Hall, Felicia Lake, and Aaron Hall are the decedent's children, and Respondent Catherine Taylor Hall, is the decedent's second wife. Decedent's Last Will and Testament was executed in 1976, long before his second marriage, which occurred on January 1, 2008. In his will, decedent left his entire estate to Anthony,  expressing the confidence that Anthony would provide adequately for decedent's other children. However, after decedent's death, his children discovered that the bulk of their father's real and personal property, valued at nearly $600, 000.00, was held by the entireties or jointly with his second wife, leaving them almost nothing. The children now have taken exception to the First and Final Accounting filed by Catherine, claiming that the transfers of real property to Catherine and the creation of joint accounts were the product of Catherine's undue influence or, in the alternative, that the joint bank accounts were intended to be convenience accounts.
This matter began on December 19, 2012, when petitioners filed a Demand for Bond under 12 Del. C. § 1524, alleging that respondent had exerted undue influence on the decedent in order to persuade him to change account titles and execute deeds, and that without a bond in the amount of $575, 000.00, petitioners would suffer irreparable harm. Petitioners amended their demand on May 29, 2013,  to include their exception to the First and Final Account that was filed in the Register of Wills Office in Sussex County on March 25, 2013. In her response to the amended complaint filed on July 31, 2013,  Respondent denied the allegations of undue influence and other wrongdoing, and counterclaimed for waste, misappropriation and other claims related to petitioners' continued occupancy of decedent's real property, which had passed by operation of law to respondent. Petitioners denied having committed any waste or misappropriation, and alleged that they had an agreement with their late father regarding the possession and use of the real property located at 32244 Powell Farm Road, Frankford, Delaware 19945 (the "Powell Farm Road Property").
Mr. Hall and his first wife divorced when their children were quite young. Anthony, who is the oldest of the three children, recalled that he was nine or ten years old when his parents separated. Mr. Hall was a member of the United States Air Force and was sent to Vietnam. Anthony's mother remarried and moved to Dover, taking Felicia and Aaron to live with her while Anthony resided with his paternal grandparents at the Powell Farm Road Property. When Mr. Hall returned from overseas, he was stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, and Anthony moved to New Jersey to live with his father. After Anthony graduated from high school in New Jersey, he attended college in Baltimore, Maryland, spending his school vacations and holidays with his grandparents, his father or his siblings. After he graduated from college, Anthony remained in Baltimore, got married, and raised a family there. Felicia followed Anthony to college in Baltimore, and also remained there to work and raise a family.
Mr. Hall served in the Air Force for 23 years, retiring in 1983 or 1984. After he retired, Mr. Hall returned to live with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Aldon D. Hall at the Powell Farm Road Property. Anthony recalled meeting Catherine occasionally when he and his young family would visit Mr. Hall in Frankford. During those visits, he observed Catherine staying in a mobile home behind the main residence at the Powell Farm Road Property. Even though he knew the couple had a long-standing committed relationship, Anthony was surprised when his father and Catherine announced in December 2007 that they were getting married.
Upon his return to Delaware, Mr. Hall worked with his father mowing lawns and doing handyman chores for other people. Mr. Hall subsequently established a solely-owned business known as "Hall'ing" doing lawn and general maintenance work. When Aaron returned to Sussex County in 1987 with his own family, Aaron worked in his father's business, initially as a crew chief with other employees. Around 2005 or 2006, as Mr. Hall began losing his physical strength and suffering some memory loss, Aaron took over the logistical and financial side of his father's business. While Mr. Hall was still in his prime, whenever any of his grandsons reached the age of ten years, they would spend several summers at the Powell Farm Road Property helping out in the business. Mr. Hall loved having his grandchildren with him, and took them on excursions to Ocean City to play miniature golf.
On December 21, 2006, Mr. Hall had a fainting spell during which his heart stopped beating. He was resuscitated by paramedics, taken to the hospital for emergency treatment, and had a pacemaker installed. Mr. Hall apparently had experienced a similar episode of fainting the month before this incident. On February 1, 2007, Mr. Hall was seen by a neurologist, Dr. Paul Peet, because Mr. Hall was having difficulty with his short-term memory. According to Dr. Peet's trial deposition, Mr. Hall's history suggested that he had suffered some injury to the brain following his cardiac arrest. Catherine accompanied Mr. Hall on this initial visit and each subsequent visit to Dr. Peet. In August 2007, the couple returned to Dr. Peet and Catherine reported that Mr. Hall was having difficulty in remembering the directions to places he previously had been or remembering people he should have known. Mr. Hall, on the other, did not think his memory loss was significant.
On December 5, 2007, Mr. Hall was taken to the hospital by paramedics after Catherine had noticed that he was having difficulty speaking on the telephone, and Mr. Hall had a seizure while in the emergency room. At some point during this month, Anthony, Felicia, and Aaron received invitations announcing their father's upcoming wedding to Catherine, which was scheduled to take place on January 1, 2008. On December 31, 2007, Mr. Hall executed two deeds in which he transferred two small parcels of solely-owned property to himself and his three children in undivided equal shares as tenants in common.That same day, Mr. Hall was seen by Dr. Peet in a follow-up visit to his December 5th hospitalization.
On January 1, 2008, Mr. Hall and Catherine were married with petitioners and other family members in attendance. Mr. Hall was nearly 67 years old and Catherine, then in her mid-fifties, was still working as a full-time administrative assistant in the Delaware Department of Correction. Catherine moved into the Powell Farm Road Property with her husband and his father ("Aldon D."), who by then was in his late 90s. Catherine helped Mr. Hall in caring for his elderly father, but she apparently was not interested in the lawn maintenance business that Mr. Hall conducted from his home office. According to Aaron, Catherine refused to take messages when customers telephoned the residence so Aaron gave them his telephone number.
On June 19, 2008, Mr. Hall visited Dr. Peet with a complaint of blurred vision and dizziness. Catherine wanted her husband to be evaluated at Johns Hopkins Department of Neurology so Dr. Peet provided a referral. Up until this point, according to Dr. Peet, Mr. Hall had remained active and was still mowing lawns. On September 23, 2008, Mr. Hall stood up and fell, apparently triggering another seizure that lasted about three minutes. On October 2, 2008, Mr. Hall was seen by Dr. Paul Dash, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins, who made a clinical diagnosis of Parkinson's disease and some form of dementia other than Alzheimer's, which likely stemmed from the brain injury that occurred when his heart had stopped beating.
On October 22, 2008, Catherine drove her husband, who was no longer able to drive an automobile, to Citizens Bank where he added Catherine's name as joint owner with right of survivorship to his three bank accounts. On October 31, 2008, Catherine's name was added to a checking account already titled in the names of Aldon D. Hall and Aldon S. Hall at PNC Bank. On January 22, 2009, Catherine's name was added to her husband's three accounts at the Bank of Delmarva as a joint owner with right of survivorship. In June of that year, Catherine retired after 30 years of employment with the State. On December 22, 2009, Mr. Hall executed a durable power of attorney document naming his wife as his agent. On December 24, 2009, Catherine was added to a membership account or accounts already ...