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In re Estate of Gebis

March 18, 1999

IN RE ESTATE OF SOFIA GEBIS, A DISABLED PERSON (JOSEPHGEBIS, APPELLANT,
v.
EVELYN SWIETEK, APPELLEE).



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rathje

Agenda 10-January 1999.

The sole issue presented in this appeal is whether the statutory custodial claim established in section 18-1.1 of the Probate Act of 1975 (755 ILCS 5/18-1.1 (West 1996)) is constitutional. The trial court held that it was not, concluding that section 18-1.1 violated substantive due process, equal protection, and special legislation principles. Appeal from the trial court's judgment lies directly with this court. 134 Ill. 2d R. 302(a). Because the trial court lacked the subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate a statutory custodial claim, we vacate its judgment.

BACKGROUND

Joseph Gebis and Evelyn Swietek are the son and daughter of Sofia Gebis. In 1994, Joseph and Evelyn filed a petition with the trial court to have Sofia declared a disabled person. The trial court granted the petition and appointed Joseph and Evelyn as coguardians of Sofia's estate. Sofia died on February 8, 1997. On July 14, 1997, and pursuant to section 18-1.1 of the Probate Act, Joseph filed a verified claim against the guardianship estate seeking $361,320 in compensation for caring for Sofia during the final years of her life. Joseph alleged that, for 11 years prior to Sofia's death, he lived with Sofia and devoted himself to her care. As a result of personally caring for Sofia, Joseph limited his lifestyle choices and opportunities, limited his chiropractic practice and professional engagements, and suffered emotional distress.

Evelyn, individually and as coguardian of Sofia's estate, moved to dismiss Joseph's claim on numerous grounds. Evelyn first attacked the factual basis for Joseph's claim, arguing that, as coguardians of Sofia's estate and person, she and Joseph hired and paid for full-time professional care for Sofia throughout the course of her disability. Evelyn next attacked section 18-1.1's constitutionality, arguing that section 18-1.1 violated both substantive and procedural due process principles (U.S. Const., amend. XIV; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §2); the equal protection clause (U.S. Const., amend. XIV; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §2); the prohibition against special legislation (Ill. Const.1970, art. IV, §13); and the separation of powers doctrine (Ill. Const.1970, art. II, §1).

In a written opinion, the trial court granted Evelyn's motion to dismiss, holding that section 18-1.1 violates substantive due process principles, violates the equal protection clause, and constitutes special legislation. This timely appeal followed.

ANALYSIS

Although neither party raises the issue, we have an obligation to consider, sua sponte, whether the trial court possessed subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate Joseph's statutory custodial claim. See People v. Bounds, 182 Ill. 2d 1, 3 (1998); Eastern v. Canty, 75 Ill. 2d 566, 570 (1979).

Subject matter jurisdiction refers to a court's power both to adjudicate the general question involved and to grant the particular relief requested. In re M.M., 156 Ill. 2d 53, 64 (1993). Under the Illinois Constitution of 1970, the circuit court enjoys, with limited exceptions, "original jurisdiction of all justiciable maters." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, §9. Although the legislature may not limit the circuit court's original jurisdiction to hear a justiciable matter, it may create a justiciable matter by creating rights or duties that have no counterpart in common law or equity. See M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 65; Board of Education of Warren Township High School District 121 v. Warren Township High School Federation of Teachers, Local 504, 128 Ill. 2d 155, 165-66 (1989). In such instances, while the circuit court's original jurisdiction to adjudicate the matter derives from the constitution, the justiciable matter itself is defined by the legislature. M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 65. The legislature may define the "justiciable matter" in such a way as to limit or preclude the circuit court's authority. M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 65. When the circuit court's power to act is controlled by statute, the circuit court is governed by the rules of limited jurisdiction and must proceed within the statute's strictures. M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 66. Any action taken by the circuit court that exceeds its jurisdiction is void and may be attacked at any time. In re Estate of Steinfeld, 158 Ill. 2d 1, 12 (1994).

With these principles in mind, we must decide whether, following Sofia's death, the trial court presiding over Sofia's guardianship proceeding had the jurisdiction to adjudicate a statutory custodial claim filed against Sofia's guardianship estate. We hold that it did not.

The general rule is that, upon the ward's death, both the guardianship and the trial court's jurisdiction to supervise the ward's estate necessarily terminate. See In re Estate of Wellman, 174 Ill. 2d 335, 350 (1996); In re Estate of Nelson, 250 Ill. App. 3d 282, 287 (1993). The Probate Act accords with this general rule, providing that, with the sole exception of the powers and duties set forth in section 24-19 of the Probate Act, "[t]he office of the representative of a ward terminates *** when the ward dies." See 755 ILCS 5/24-12 (West 1996). Section 24-19, which governs the administration of a deceased ward's estate, provides that, "until the issuance of letters testamentary or of administration[,] *** a representative of the estate of a deceased ward has the powers and duties of an administrator to collect." 755 ILCS 5/24-19(a) (West 1996). Under the Probate Act, an administrator to collect "has the power to sue for and collect the personal estate and debts due the decedent *** and by leave of court to exercise the powers vested by law in an administrator." 755 ILCS 5/10-4 (West 1996). This court has held that, so defined, the authority of an administrator to collect is confined to preserving the estate until an executor or administrator is appointed. See In re Estate of Breault, 29 Ill. 2d 165, 179 (1963). An administrator to collect has no power to pay claims filed against the guardianship estate. See Jacob Wener & Co. v. Freilich, 268 Ill. 58, 60-61 (1915).

Thus, even if a person filing a statutory custodial claim against a deceased ward's guardianship estate could prove that he is entitled to that claim, he could never enforce that claim because the guardian is statutorily prohibited from paying it. Certainly, if the claimant is powerless to enforce and the guardian is powerless to pay a statutory custodial claim filed against a deceased ward's guardianship estate, the trial court supervising the guardianship estate is powerless to adjudicate such claims, as jurisdiction lies only where the court can grant the particular relief requested. See M.M., 156 Ill. 2d at 64.

This is not to say that the creditors of a deceased ward are without remedy. On the contrary, they, like the creditors of any decedent, may file a claim against the decedent's estate once an executor or administrator is appointed and the decedent's estate is opened. See 755 ILCS 5/18-1 (West 1996). Or, if the deceased ward's estate is not yet open, a deceased ward's creditors, again like any decedent's creditors, may petition the circuit court either for admission of the decedent ward's will to probate (see 755 ILCS 5/6-2 (West 1996)) or for letters of administration (see 755 ILCS 5/9-3 (West 1996)). What a deceased ward's creditors may not do is file a claim against the guardianship estate. Once a disabled person dies, the guardianship terminates and the court supervising the guardianship estate loses jurisdiction to adjudicate a claim filed against that estate. The decedent's estate is the only avenue for recovery. See generally Nonnast v. Northern Trust Co., 374 Ill. 248, 268 (1940) (claims against a ward are filed against the ward if she is living and against her estate if she is dead).

The particular claim at issue in this case, section 18-1.1's statutory custodial claim, may be filed only against a decedent's estate. On its face, section 18-1.1 provides that certain classes of caregivers are entitled to "a claim against the estate upon the death of the disabled person." (Emphasis added.) 755 ILCS 5/18-1.1 (West 1996). Thus, the statutory custodial claim matures and may be filed only after a disabled person dies. Significantly, article 18 of the Probate Act recognizes only two classes of estates against which claims may be filed, those belonging to wards and those belonging to decedents. Once a disabled person dies, she by definition ceases to be a "ward" and instead becomes a "decedent." Thus, it is against the decedent's estate that the custodial claim must be filed. This Conclusion is confirmed by the fact that section ...


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