CONSERVATORSHIP OF the Person and ESTATE OF Edward S. HUME, Sr. John S. Williams, as Public Guardian etc., Petitioner and Respondent, v. William Snow Hume, Objector and Appellant.
William Snow Hume has appealed from the order of the trial court approving a final accounting by the county public guardian as conservator for Hume's now-deceased father.1 His main complaint, and one which we must conclude is well-taken, is that the accounting failed to include his father's interests in certain real property in Tennessee.2
There is no question that the conservatee actually did own real property in Tennessee-the public guardian's accounting in fact listed the conservatee's one-half community interest in crop rents received from the property. Those rents didn't just fall off a pear tree. They were derived from a substantial asset owned by the conservatee.
Hume's own interest, as he voiced toward the end of the trial court hearing on the accounting, is that he is afraid that certain siblings are in possession of an “unrecorded trust instrument” on the property which-though he didn't quite come out and say it-might in some unspecified way be used to deprive him of his share in the property that he might otherwise receive by way of inheritance. Given that a conservator's accounting can be incorporated by reference in “traditional” (after-death) probate proceedings and the personal representative of the decedent has no duty to independently investigate the transactions in the accounting,3 we cannot a priori dismiss Hume's fears as insubstantial. In any event, the public guardian makes no argument that Hume is not a party aggrieved by the trial court's order.
While the record is sketchy, by way of background it is enough to say that sometime on or before June 2002, the Orange County Public Guardian was appointed conservator of Hume's father. Hume's father died in late 2003.4 In October 2004 the public guardian filed his first and final accounting and report for the period June 2002 through September 2004, and a petition for its approval. The accounting did not list any Tennessee property as an asset of the estate (the assets of which were otherwise about $540,000), though it did list the conservatee's one-half community interest in crop rents “from Tennessee property.” Hume filed objections to the petition. One thing he managed to make crystal clear was that the public guardian was under a legal obligation to list out-of-state real property and had failed to do so. (On appeal, the public guardian offers no argument that Hume's objection on this point was otherwise procedurally defective so as to relieve us of the need to address its merits.) The trial court took the matter under submission, and made an order in March 2005 overruling Hume's objections and approving the public guardian's petition. Hume has timely appealed from the formal order settling and approving the public guardian's first and final account filed May 6, 2005.
A. The Relevant Statutes
A conservator's accounting duties are set forth in sections 2610 and 2620 of the Probate Code.5
Section 2610, subdivision (a) provides: “Within 90 days after appointment, or within such further time as the court for reasonable cause upon ex parte petition of the guardian or conservator may allow, the guardian or conservator shall file with the clerk of the court an inventory and appraisal of the estate, made as of the date of the appointment of the guardian or conservator.” (Italics added.)
Section 2610, subdivision (b) provides: “The guardian or conservator shall take and subscribe to an oath that the inventory contains a true statement of all of the estate of the ward or conservatee of which the guardian or conservator has possession or knowledge. The oath shall be endorsed upon or annexed to the inventory.” (Italics added.)
Section 2620, subdivision (a) provides: “At the expiration of one year from the time of appointment and thereafter not less frequently than biennially, unless otherwise ordered by the court, the guardian or conservator shall present the accounting of the assets of the estate of the ward or conservatee to the court for settlement and allowance in the manner provided in Chapter 4 (commencing with Section 1060) of Part 1 of Division 3.” (Italics added.)
Interestingly enough, the word “estate” is not specially defined in the general definitions sections of the Probate Code. (See §§ 21-88 [defining various terms of art in the probate code]; see also § 20 [“Unless the provision or context otherwise requires, the definitions in this part govern the construction of this code.”].) Nor is the word specifically defined in the portions of the Probate Code dealing with conservatorships. The only words that appear specifically defined for conservatorship law (or guardianship law, since the two subjects are treated together) are “Conservator” and “Guardian” in section 2600. Conservator is defined in section 2600 with reference to the “estate” of a conservatee, but, again, estate itself is not defined, though it is clear that conservators are concerned with “the estate.” (“ ‘Conservator’ means (1) the conservator of the estate or (2) the limited conservator of the estate to the extent that the powers and duties of the limited conservator are specifically and expressly provided by the order appointing the limited conservator.”)
The closest specific definition of the word “estate” as used in the conservatorship accounting statutes is the reference in section 2620 to the “manner” of accounting specified in section 1060 et seq. Section 1060 et seq. generally deals with contents of accounts.
Section 1061, subdivision (a)(1), requires all property to be accounted for, without exclusion for out-of-state real property: “All accounts shall state the period covered by the account and contain a summary showing all of the following, to the extent applicable: [¶] (1) The property on hand at the beginning of the period covered by the account, which shall be the value of the property initially received by the fiduciary if this is the first account, and shall be the property on hand at the end of the prior account if this is a subsequent account.” Property is defined in the Probate Code, in section 62, in way that includes out-of-state real property: “ ‘Property’ means anything that may be the subject of ownership and includes both real and personal property and any interest therein.”
Thus even without a specified definition for “estate” then, it would appear that the manner of accounting for conservatorships in section 2620 as further delineated in section 1061 et seq. contemplates inclusion of out-of-state real property.
When one looks at the ordinary meaning of the word “estate” as it must be construed under the statute, the inclusion of out-of-state property is confirmed. (Since “estate” is not given a particular definition in the statutes, courts should look to the common and ordinary meaning of the term. (See Baxter Healthcare Corp. v. California Ins. Guarantee Assn. (2000) 85 Cal.App.4th 306, 314, 102 Cal.Rptr.2d 87) [“The term is not defined or qualified by the act. It must be read in the context of the entire statute and given the meaning it bears in ordinary usage.”].)
Granted, even for lawyers the word “estate” may carry the musty associations of first year property law, and for others the word is redolent of medieval hierarchies-think of Shakespeare's line about “when I came to man's estate” from Twelfth Night. In fact, in that regard, the very first set of definitions in the American Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1981 ed.) at page 778 give the word “estate” a modern meaning equivalent to Shakespeare's, i.e., the word describes an overall condition or totality of circumstances. (“1: State, condition: a: the form of existence or state of being something ․ b: circumstances or situation in life․”) That itself is some indication that the Legislature intended the accounting of an estate to include everything, i.e., the totality of a conservatee's circumstances.
That conclusion becomes clearer when Webster's finally gets to the word in a context of property ownership. There, the focus is specifically on the aggregate or totality of one's property. The dictionary begins generally (“4. a: the property or piece or aggregation of property in lands or tenements and sometimes personalty: fortune, possessions