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O'DAY et al. v. SUPERIOR COURT IN AND FOR LOS ANGELES COUNTY et al.
This is an original proceeding in mandamus wherein petitioners ask this court to issue a writ of mandate directing the superior court of the county of Los Angeles to permit petitioners to participate in a proceeding to determine heirship in accordance with a certain statement of heirship filed by them on May 8, 1939, as alleged heirs of one Michael F. O'Dea, deceased. Petitioners also ask this court to issue a writ of mandate against said superior court and the clerk thereof directing the latter to accept for filing a ‘second statement of heirship’ presented by them for filing on May 1, 1940, and compelling said superior court to allow and permit the filing of said ‘second statement of heirship’ and to consider the merits of same in said proceeding.
On August 11, 1938, James Lynch and others constituting one group of alleged heirs of said deceased, filed a petition in said superior court to establish heirship in the matter of the estate of Michael F. O'Dea, as provided by section 1080 of the Probate Code. On May 8, 1939, petitioners herein filed their first statement of heirship in said estate proceeding. During the pendency of said estate proceeding, many other claimants filed similar statements, and after considerable delay, a hearing on the proceeding to determine heirship was commenced on July 17, 1939. The clerk of said court gave notice of said hearing by posting as required by section 1200 of the Probate Code. There were hundreds of alleged claimants, and on July 25, 1939, the probate court, apparently in an effort to facilitate proceedings by eliminating all those claimants who were not seriously pressing their alleged claims, or who had failed to diligently prosecute same, granted a motion made by counsel for some of the claimants for an order to enter default judgments against all claimants who had not, at that date, appeared or filed statements of heirship, and a further motion to enter a judgment of nonsuit against all persons who had filed such statements, but who were not then present either in person or by counsel. The latter order included the names of the petitioners herein. The method used by the court was to have the clerk read aloud the names of all persons who had filed such statements, and those who did not answer were nonsuited. It my be here noted that petitioners were represented by attorneys in the proceeding up to the day prior to the entry of the judgment of nonsuit. Ast that time, July 24, 1939, said attorneys stated to the court that they were withdrawing, and that in any further proceedings, the petitioners would represent themselves in propria personae.
The next date of importance is that of January 5, 1940. On that date petitioners, through new attorneys, moved to set aside the judgment of nonsuit and dismissal under section 473 of the Code of Civil Procedure. This motion was denied, and on April 15, 1940, petitioners again moved to vacate the judgment of nonsuit and dismissal. Again the motion was denied and on April 25, 1940, petitioners appealed to this court from the order of denial. On July 3, 1940, this court granted a motion to dismiss the appeal from the order denying the motion to vacate the judgment of nonsuit on the ground that such order was not appealable under section 1240 of the Probate Code. Estate of O'Dea, Cal.Supp., 104 P.2d 368.
On May 1, 1940, petitioners, in open court offered a ‘second statement of heirship’ for filing. This statement was identical with the first, and before permitting its filing, the superior court asked if there were any objections to filing the same. Objections were thereupon made by attorneys for other claimants whose claims were then being heard; the objections were sustained, and the court ordered the clerk to not accept the statement of petitioners for filing but to keep it in the records of the estate proceeding endorsed for identification only.
The petition for writ of mandate presented to this court by petitioners is in two counts. The first count pleads the facts with reference to the filing by petitioners in the trial court of their first statement of heirship and the making of the order directing the entry of a default against all claimants who had not appeared in said proceeding on or prior to July 25, 1939, and the entry of a judgment of nonsuit and dismissal against all petitioners who had filed claims or statements of heirship but who were not present either in person or by attorney on that date. The second count pleaded the facts with reference to the offer of petitioners to file their so-called second statement of heirship and the refusal of the trial court to permit the filing of the same.
In their prayer to the petition, petitioners ask this court for a writ of mandate ‘compelling the respondent court to assume jurisdiction of the cause manifested and commenced by the statement of heirship of petitioners filed on May 8, 1939, and to provide a trial and hearing on the merits of the issues raised by said statement of heirship as prescribed by law and to permit petitioners to fully participate in all proceedings and hearings at the trial of all proceedings to determine heirship in said estate’.
Petitioners contend that the trial court acted in excess of its jurisdiction in directing the entry of a judgment of nonsuit and dismissal against them and that said judgment is therefore void and of no effect and does not constitute a bar to their participation in the proceedings to determine heirship in said estate.
We are disposed to agree with the contention of petitioners in this regard as we are of the opinion that the trial court misconceived the nature of the proceeding to determine heirship now authorized by sections 1080, 1081 and 1082 of the Probate Code.
In enacting these sections of the Probate Code it was the obvious intention of the legislature to provide a simple and expeditious method of determining who are the rightful heirs of an estate and entitled to distribution thereof. The proceeding contemplated by said sections is not in the nature of a civil action wherein the respective claimants are necessarily adverse parties to each other in the sense that they are seeking redress of any grievance arising out of the violation of any right inuring to the respective claimants. Such proceeding is essentially one in rem to determine who is entitled to the assets of the estate. It is conceivable that the trial court might determine that none of the claimants who had filed petitions or statements of heirship were the rightful heirs to the estate and were therefore not entitled to the distribution of any portion thereof; in other words, the court is not required to decide in favor of any claimant who does not prove to the satisfaction of the court that he is a relative of the deceased and entitled to distribution of a portion of his estate under the laws of descent of this state. It is possible therefore that the result of such a proceeding might be a determination that deceased left no living heirs and his estate would escheat to the state of California.
It cannot be denied that the ultimate aim and purpose of administrative proceedings, including proceedings to determine heirship, is to ascertain the persons entitled to share in the estate of the decedent and to decree distribution accordingly. Every consideration of justice and public policy dictates that the estates of decedents be distributed to persons rightfully entitled thereto and that every concern and endeavor of a probate court should be directed to the accomplishment of this purpose. Edlund v. Superior Court, 209 Cal. 690, 289 P. 841.
With the foregoing considerations in mind let us proceed with an analysis of the provisions of sections 1080, 1081 and 1082 of the Probate Code in their application to the accomplishment of the above-mentioned object and purpose. Said sections contain no provision for the entry of defaults, dismissals or nonsuits which are characteristic of civil actions. In this respect proceedings under these sections are somewhat analogous to a proceeding under former section 1668 of the Code of Civil Procedure which authorized the filing of objections to a petition for distribution by one claiming the right to have a share of the estate distributed to him differently from that proposed in the petition for distribution. It was held by this court that since no provision was contained in section 1668 authorizing the entry of a default against such a claimant, he was not barred even if he failed to file his objections prior to the actual commencement of a hearing on a petition for distribution. Estate of Ross, 185 Cal. 8, 195 P. 674. While section 1080 provides that the clerk shall set the petition to determine heirship for hearing by the court, the only notice required to be given prior to such hearing is a ten day's notice by posting in the manner required by section 1200 of the Probate Code. After the original petition to determine heirship is filed, any person claiming to be an heir to the estate may appear and file a written statement setting forth his interest in the estate. The petition and statements so filed constitute the pleadings in such a proceeding.
Section 1081 provides for a hearing on the petition and any objection thereto that may have been presented. While no reference is made in said last-mentioned section to a hearing on the statements of heirship filed subsequent to the petition, it must be assumed that it was the intention of the legislature that all claimants whether by petition or statement are entitled to have their claims heard by the court before the court determines who are the heirs of the decedent and entitled to distribution of his estate. Section 1082 provides that when the decree determining heirship becomes final, it shall be conclusive upon the matters determined during the remainder of the administration of the estate and upon any subsequent proceeding for distribution.
In our opinion the plain language of the three sections above-mentioned admits of no interpretation which would warrant the trial court in granting a judgment of nonsuit or dismissal against any person complying with the provisions of section 1080 with respect to the filing of a petition or statement of heirship and that a person so filing such a petition or statement of heirship is entitled to participate in the hearing of the proceeding in accordance with the rules of procedure provided by statute and rules of court.
The order granting the judgment of nonsuit and dismissal against the petitioners was not a mere error committed by the trial court in the exercise of its jurisdiction in this proceeding, but was unauthorized by any provision of law and was therefore void and of no effect whatsoever (Estate of England, 214 Cal. 298, 5 P.2d 428; Texas Co. v. Bank of America, 5 Cal.2d 35, 53 P.2d 127), and the trial court therefore acted in excess of its jurisdiction in refusing to permit petitioners to participate in the proceeding to determine heirship after the granting of said judgment of nonsuit and dismissal of their statement of heirship, and petitioners are entitled to a writ of mandate directing the respondent court to permit petitioners to participate in the proceeding to determine heirship in said estate.
The judgment of nonsuit and dismissal against petitioners not being authorized by any provision of law, it was clearly not an appealable order and therefore no adequate remedy by appeal was afforded petitioners under section 1240 of the Probate Code. Estate of O'Dea, Cal.Sup., 104 P.2d 368.
Since the conclusion reached by us with reference to the granting of the judgment of nonsuit and dismissal against petitioners has the effect of permitting them to proceed on their first statement of heirship, it is unnecessary for us to consider whether or not they should have been permitted to file the so-called second statement of heirship presented to the court on May 1, 1940.
Let a peremptory writ of mandate issue directing the respondent court to permit petitioners to participate in the proceeding to determine who are the rightful heirs to the estate of Michael F. O'Dea, deceased, pending in said court.
We concur: GIBSON, C. J.; SHENK, J.; TRAYNOR, J.; SPENCE, Justice pro tem. I concur in the judgment: EDMONDS, J.
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Decided: January 07, 1941
Court: Supreme Court of California.
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