In Wilson v. Lawrence, a case decided in April, 2017, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a decision which established that “[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 R.C. 2117.06(A)(1)(a) [the claim presentation statute], and… 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.”
The Ohio Supreme Court was presented with these facts: Joseph Gorman owed James Wilson a substantial amount of money. Mr. Gorman died while that debt was still owed. After Mr. Gorman’s death, Mr. Wilson submitted a letter to two of the decedent’s close associates asserting his claim against the Mr. Gorman’s estate. In the letter, Mr. Wilson requested that his correspondence be considered a presentation of his claim to Mr. Gorman’s estate. Those associates forwarded the letter to the executor of Mr. Gorman’s estate and the executor’s attorney. Nine months after the decedent’s death, the executor rejected Mr. Wilson’s claim on the bases that Mr. Wilson had not been presented the claim directly to him and, that the statutory deadline for presenting a claim to the executor had passed. Mr. Wilson initiated a lawsuit in order to establish the enforcibility of his claim and obtain a judgment in the amount thereof.
The trial court granted the executor a summary judgment dismissing Mr. Wilson’s claim, without trial. It did so on the basis of applicable language in R.C. §2117.06 which states that
(A) All creditors having claims against an estate…shall present their claims in one of the following manners:
(1) After the appointment of an executor or administrator and prior to the filing of a final account or a certificate of termination, in one of the following manners:
(a) To the executor or administrator in a writing…
The trial court judge expressly found that Mr. Wilson’s letter was sent to “two individuals who were not in fact personal representatives of the decedent’s estate” and thus that the letter was not legally sufficient, under R.C. 2117.06, for presenting Wilson’s claim.
In reversing the trial court’s judgment, the Eighth District Court of Appeals liberally interpreted R.C. §2117.06 to allow a claim to be deemed presented when individuals other than the executor or administrator who are “connected with the estate” receive the claim. However, in deciding the appeal of that decision, the Supreme Court found no such flexibility in the statute, stating,
The General Assembly’s mandate in R.C. 2117.06(A) is a clear and unequivocal command that “all creditors…shall present their claims…to the executor or administrator in a writing.” The language unambiguously states that all creditors shall present their claims in writing to the executor or administrator, “and no apparent purpose could be served by attempting to torture it into something else.”
The Court pointed out why enforcement of the statute as written was important.
The requirements of R.C. 2117.06 are not arbitrary ones that elevate form over substance. Rather, they foster and protect the vital interests of the estate and its beneficiaries, as well as the estate’s creditors, by ensuring the orderly, efficient, and legally proper administration of the estate by “a probate fiduciary, an officer of the Probate Court.”
Having found R.C. 2117.06 to be unambiguous and to impose mandatory requirements for claim presentation, the Court expressed a lack of sympathy for the non-compliant creditor.
The statute places the burden upon the claimant to present his claim with the probate officer. If a creditor fails through indifference, carelessness, delay, or lack of diligence to identify the administrator or executor, or to procure the appointment of one so that a claim can be presented, the law should not come to the creditor’s aid.
Based on the record of the case, the language of R.C. 2117.06, and the foregoing considerations, the Court held that
A claimant against an estate does not meet the requirement under R.C. 2117.06(A)(1)(a) to present a claim to the executor or administrator of an estate if the claimant delivers the claim to someone who has not been appointed by a probate court to serve as the executor or administrator of the estate.
The significance of the Supreme Court’s decision is that it makes “crystal clear” that any creditor or claimant having a claim against a debtor or wrongdoer who dies while obligated on that debt or claim must give timely written notice of the debt or claim to the executor or administrator or lose his ability to present and collect on the same.