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Wehle v. Bradley

Supreme Court of Alabama

December 22, 2017

Bonnie Wehle et al.
v.
Thomas H. Bradley et al.

         Appeal from Bullock Circuit Court (CV-07-22)

          SHAW, JUSTICE.

         Bonnie Wehle, Penny Martin, and Sharon Ann Wehle (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the daughters") appeal from the Bullock Circuit Court's order, on remand, awarding damages against Thomas H. Bradley III; James H. McGowan; and Grady Hartzog, as the personal representatives of the estate of the daughters' father (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the personal representatives"). The personal representatives purport to cross-appeal as to the portion of the circuit court's judgment awarding them attorneys' fees and expenses in connection with prior litigation between the parties.[1] We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

         Facts and Procedural History

         This is the third time this matter has been before this Court. See Wehle v. Bradley, 49 So.3d 1203 (Ala. 2010) ("Wehle I"), and Wehle v. Bradley, 195 So.3d 928 (Ala. 2015) ("Wehle II"). As established in Wehle I and Wehle II, the pertinent factual and procedural history is as follows:

"'Robert G. Wehle died on July 12, 2002. His will was admitted to probate, and [in August 2002] letters testamentary were issued to [the personal representatives]. The will created a marital trust for Wehle's wife, Gatra Wehle, and a family trust for the daughters and Wehle's granddaughter, Debbie Kloppenberg. The personal representatives were named as cotrustees of both the marital trust and the family trust.
"'In October 2005, the personal representatives petitioned the probate court for final settlement of the estate. They also filed an accounting of their administration of the estate. The accounting indicated that the personal representatives had paid themselves total compensation of $1, 964, 367.82, which, they allege, amounts to 5% of the value of Wehle's estate at the time the petition for final settlement was filed. The personal representatives argue that the amount of their fees is consistent with the statutory allowance for such fees. They also argue that Wehle told his attorney that he intended for the personal representatives' fees to be approximately 5% of the value of his estate.
"'The daughters filed an objection to the accounting, arguing, among other things, that, pursuant to § 43-2-844(7), Ala. Code 1975, the personal representatives were required to obtain prior court approval before compensating themselves out of the assets of the estate. The daughters also argued that the amount of the compensation exceeded the "reasonable compensation" allowed by § 43-2-848(a), Ala. Code 1975.
"'In March 2007, Gatra Wehle petitioned to have the administration of the estate removed to the circuit court. The petition was granted.
"'The personal representatives moved the circuit court for a partial summary judgment on the daughters' objections, arguing (1) that the will authorized the payment of the compensation to the personal representatives without prior court approval, and (2) that the statute of limitations barred the daughters' claim that the fees of the personal representatives were excessive. On July 17, 2009, the circuit court granted the personal representatives' motion for a partial summary judgment, stating:
"'"As to the claim that the Personal Representatives paid fees to themselves without obtaining Court approval, the Court finds that the terms of the Will expressly exempt the Personal Representatives from obtaining Court approval before payment of their fees. As to the claim that the fees paid were excessive, it is without factual dispute that [the daughters] had knowledge of the amount of these fees more than two years before they filed their contest of the fees and thus this claim is time barred."'
"'On July 24, 2009, the daughters appealed to this Court from the circuit court's judgment pursuant to § 12-22-4, Ala. Code 1975.'

"[Wehle I, ] 49 So.3d at 1205-07.

"In Wehle I, this Court concluded that '[b]ecause the payment of compensation to the personal representatives without prior court approval was not expressly authorized by Robert G. Wehle's will, the circuit court erred in entering its partial summary judgment in favor of the personal representatives.' 49 So.3d at 1209; see also Ala. Code 1975, § 43-2-844(7). This Court reversed the circuit court's judgment and remanded the case on that basis; it did not decide the issue whether the daughters' 'claim as to the excessiveness of the compensation is barred by the statute of limitations.'
"On remand, the circuit court held a hearing at which evidence was presented ore tenus as to the petition for final settlement of the estate. Thereafter, the circuit court entered its final order approving the compensation the personal representatives had paid themselves, i.e., $1, 964, 367.82, as 'reasonable compensation' under § 43-2-848(a), Ala. Code 1975. The order denied the daughters' claim seeking to have the personal representatives pay interest on the compensation because they had paid it without prior court approval. Also, in regard to other issues raised by the daughters, the order denied the daughters' petition to remove McGowan as a cotrustee of the family trust, denied the daughters' request to tax costs relating to Wehle I against the personal representatives, and awarded attorney fees and costs to the personal representatives in the amount of $383, 437.31 as to their defense against the daughters' claims on final settlement."

Wehle II, 195 So.3d at 932-34 (footnote omitted).

         Wehle II addresses the daughters' appeal from the above-described order. In that decision, we rejected the daughters' challenges to the reasonableness of the fees awarded to the personal representatives and the circuit court's refusal to remove McGowan as trustee. 195 So.3d at 937, 943. However, we agreed with the daughters that the circuit court had erred in denying their claim seeking to recover interest from the date of the premature compensation payments through the date those payments were finally approved by the circuit court. 195 So.3d at 941-42. We similarly agreed that the circuit court erred "insofar as it determined the amount of the attorney fees" due the personal representatives in connection with their defense of the daughters' claims. 195 So.3d at 946. Finally, we held that the circuit court had, as the daughters alleged, violated our mandate in Wehle I to tax the costs of the appeal in that case against the personal representatives. 195 So.3d 947. Thus, based upon those determinations in Wehle II,

"[w]e once again remand[ed] this case to the circuit court for the purposes of conducting an evidentiary hearing as to the personal representatives' claim for attorney fees and costs, of taxing the costs of the appeal in Wehle I against the personal representatives, and of awarding interest against the personal ...

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