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In re Estate of Dezotell

Supreme Court of Vermont

February 5, 2016

In re Estate of Dezotell

On Appeal from Superior Court, Orleans Unit, Civil Division Howard E. Van Benthuysen, J.

Jennifer DeForge, Renee Dezotelle, Beverly Sanborn, Sammie-Jo Lackie, Nicole Sevigny and Melissan Dezotelle, Pro Ses, Montpelier, Appellants.

Andrew D. Manitsky of Gravel & Shea PC, Burlington, for Appellee.

Maria Dezotell, Pro Se, Keeseville, New York, Appellee.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

REIBER, C.J.

¶ 1. The questions presented are whether, in distributing the proceeds of a wrongful-death settlement to the decedent's spouse and children, the trial court was bound by the provisions of an earlier settlement distribution, and, if not, whether the court erred in curtailing an evidentiary hearing to divide the settlement in proportion to the pecuniary injuries suffered. We hold that that the trial court correctly concluded that it was not bound by the prior order, but erred in limiting the evidentiary hearing. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

¶ 2. The undisputed facts and procedural history may be summarized as follows. Decedent Lyman Dezotell was killed in an automobile accident in November 2001. At the time of his death, decedent had been married for about eight months to Maria Dezotell. Decedent had met Maria online, traveled to Romania where she lived, spent about a month there, and ultimately married her in March 2001. Maria was pregnant with the couple's first child when decedent was killed. The child, Roger Dezotell, was born in June 2002.[1]

¶ 3. Decedent had six daughters at the time of his death. Four were from an earlier marriage to Linda Bedard that ended in divorce: Renee, who was twenty years old; Beverly, who was nineteen, Sammie-Jo, then sixteen, and Nicole, who was fifteen. One daughter, Jennifer, then almost twenty-three, had been adopted. The sixth daughter, Melissan, then eight years old, was from a three-year relationship with Melissan's mother that ended in 1994, when Melissan was one. Melissan later lived with her mother. Decedent enjoyed regular visits with Melissan on weekends, but provided little financial support. Based on decedent's income from a fulltime job at IBM acquired about two years before his death, the trial court determined that decedent's child support obligation for Melissan would have been $590 per month.

¶ 4. Maria was appointed to serve as the administrator of the estate, and subsequently petitioned the superior court, pursuant to the provisions of 14 V.S.A. § 1492(c), [2] to distribute a combination of insurance proceeds that totaled about $135, 000. Following an evidentiary hearing, the court issued a written ruling in November 2004.

¶ 5. The trial court noted that, under settled law, the "pecuniary injuries suffered" by the parties under 14 V.S.A. § 1492, were not limited to purely economic losses, but could also include "loss of companionship . . . as well as compensation for [the] lost intellectual, moral and physical training or the loss of care, nurture and protection" provided by a parent. Mears v. Colvin, 171 Vt. 655, 657, 768 A.2d 1264, 1267 (2000) (mem.) (quotations omitted). These considerations extend to the loss suffered by an adult child, as well as a minor. See id. at 656, 768 A.2d at 1266 (plaintiffs claimed that father's loss "had deprived his next of kin-including his wife . . ., four adult daughters, and one minor child-of a close and loving relationship"). In distributing the settlement, therefore, the trial court was authorized to "consider the physical, emotional, and psychological relationship of the parties, as well as their living arrangements . . . the harmony of family relations, and the commonality of interests and activities." Id. at 657-58, 768 A.2d at 1267 (quotations omitted).

¶ 6. In this respect, the trial court noted that decedent had been awarded sole parental rights and responsibilities for the children after his divorce; that he had performed most of the household work with some assistance from his daughters as they got older; and that through a combination of "part-time and odd jobs" he had been able to provide the "bare essentials" for himself and the children. While his means were limited, the court nevertheless found that decedent had loved each of his daughters "in his own way" and that they had returned the affection; that his daughters had "continued to seek [decedent's] advice and counsel after they left the household;" and that decedent had offered them whatever wisdom he could, urging, for example, that they complete their schooling and vocational training even if he could not assist them financially.

¶ 7. As to his new family, the court found that, before moving to the United States from Romania in 2001, Maria had obtained the equivalent of a B.A. in chemistry, was a relatively accomplished and well-known journalist, and was fluent in English. She had worked as a para-educator in the North Country school district before decedent's death, and since then had become a fulltime math and science teach at Craftsbury Academy by waiver, and was taking the necessary coursework to obtain her teacher's license.

¶ 8. Based on these findings, the court concluded that a "lump sum distribution of $2500 is fair and appropriate to each of [decedent's] adult daughters."[3] Although still minors when decedent was killed, the court included Sammi-Jo and Nicole in this distribution because Sammi-Jo was "effectively emancipated" and living without her father's support, and Nicole had departed to live with her mother. The court explained that, while none of the daughters could have realistically expected any significant financial assistance from decedent, each had a "special relationship with" decedent and had suffered "some loss of companionship and parental direction."

ΒΆ 9. As to Melissan, who was still a minor, the court noted that decedent had a "statutory obligation to support [the] child" which he had largely ignored, while nevertheless maintaining some "meaningful parent-child contact." The court thus concluded that "the sum of $25, 000 seems fair and just for Melissan." The court directed that the money be held in trust for Melissan's benefit by her mother, and that it be used only for "extraordinary expenses, " with ...


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