On July 22, 2017, Orlando Lewis, Jr. died in a car crash in Monroe County along with his wife, Shante Lewis.  The lone survivor of the crash was the couple’s two-year-old daughter, K.L.  In addition to K.L., Orlando Lewis, Jr. was survived by his six-year-old son, J.T., whose mother is Shana Tolliver.  He was also survived by both of his parents, including his father, Orlando Lewis, Sr. (“Lewis, Sr.”).  Kathy Calloway, K.L.’s aunt, was subsequently appointed as K.L.’s temporary guardian and has remained ever since.

On July 25th, Lewis Sr., sought appointment as special administrator of his son’s estate in the Johnson County Superior Court.  Before his death, Orlando Lewis Jr. resided in Johnson County and Lewis Sr. sought the appointment so he could pursue wrongful death damages for his late son’s death.  The Johnson County Superior Court Judge granted Lewis Sr.’s petition and issued letters of administration to him several days later.  The letters of administration allowed Lewis Sr. to file a wrongful-death claim in the Monroe Circuit Court, where the accident occurred. 

The next day, Shana Toliver, J.T.’s mother, filed her own petition for appointment as special administrator of Orlando Lewis, Jr.’s estate in the Marion County Superior Court.  Toliver supports J.T., who is medically disabled.  The Marion Superior Court Judge appointed Toliver special administrator and also issued letters of administration to Toliver.  She then filed her own wrongful-death action for Orlando Lewis, Jr.’s estate in Marion County.

Toliver eventually learned of the Johnson County proceedings and on August 28th, she attempted to intervene in the proceedings and have Lewis, Sr. removed as special administrator of Orlando Lewis, Jr.’s estate.  Additionally, on August 30th, Calloway petitioned to intervene in the Johnson County proceeding and later asked the court to reconsider or remove its appointment of Lewis, Sr. as special administrator.   Both Toliver and Calloway argued that they should be appointed as special administrator of Orlando Lewis, Jr.’s estate as the appointed guardians of his children.  Lewis, Sr. had only met J.T. once and saw K.L. on four or five previous occasions.

On December 4th, the Johnson County court ordered that it would reconsider and rescind the appointment of Lewis, Sr. as special administrator and vacate his letters of administration.  The court then appointed Toliver and Calloway as co-special administrators for Orlando Lewis, Jr.’s estate for the limited purpose of pursuing the wrongful death claim.  Lewis, Sr. appealed the trial court’s decision to replace him as special administrator and the case was eventually heard by the Indiana Supreme Court.

On June 3, 2019, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s order reconsidering its appointment of Lewis, Sr., in its decision in Lewis v. Toliver (In re Unsupervised Estate of Lewis), 123 N.E.3d 670 (Ind. 2019).  In affirming the decision, the Indiana Supreme Court initially focused on the fact that the trial court had not removed Lewis Sr. pursuant to statute, but had instead rescinded the appointment of Lewis, Sr. based on the court’s inherent power to reconsider a prior ruling in an open case that was pending resolution.  The Supreme Court stated that a court’s authority to reconsider a prior ruling in an underlying matter that is still pending is firmly established and is easily extended to cover the factual scenario where the court reconsiders the appointment of a special administrator.

Next, the Supreme Court held that the trial court’s actions in reconsidering the appointment of Lewis, Sr. was not an abuse of discretion.  The Supreme Court observed that the trial court had appointed Lewis, Sr. because he had “won the race to the courthouse” and, that upon receiving further information, had reconsidered the appointment when the trial court learned of Lewis, Sr.’s lack of a meaningful relationship with J.T. and K.L.  Additionally, the Supreme Court also found that the appointment of both guardians of the children as co-special administrators of the estate was a reasonable action for the trial court to take in regard to the best interests of both J.T. and K.L.

Last, the Supreme Court noted a procedural change related future requests for appointment of a special administrator.   The Supreme Court held that, although not required by statute, a court faced with a motion for appointment of a special administrator should afford notice to beneficiaries or their legal representatives and hold a hearing prior to appointing a special administrator.  In future cases, a motion to appoint a special administrator should identify each potential beneficiary or legal representative likely to be interested in the appointment, along with each person’s contact information.  After notice, the court will hear any objections to the appointment of a special administrator and will ascertain whether the petitioner is a suitable special administrator.  The Supreme Court opined that this process will ensure a more orderly appointment and greatly reduce the chance that a potential beneficiary or legal representative will come forward later and object to the appointment of the special administrator.

Going forward, practitioners should be mindful of the Supreme Court’s requirements for the appointment of a special administrator.  It would not be surprising to see the Indiana Legislature codify this requirement in the Probate Code in the future.

Note that this post is only a brief summary of the procedures related to the appointment of a special administrator.  It does not constitute legal advice nor does it establish an attorney/client relationship.  Should you have specific questions regarding the above, please contact Ben Ballou or Carl Hall at Hodges and Davis.

Hodges and Davis, P.C. – August 2019

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