Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division
In re ESTATE OF JAMES F. CERAMI, Deceased
CHRISTINA CERAMI, Claimant-Appellee. SALVATORE CERAMI, Executor-Appellant,
from the Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 2014-P-4936; the
Hon. James G. Riley and the Hon. Susan M. Coleman, Judges,
B. Schmidt, of Lincoln Law Partners, P.C., of Chicago, for
Cornelius E. McKnight, Kevin Q. Butler, and Bryan T. Butcher,
of McKnight & Kitzinger, LLC, of Chicago, for appellee.
JUSTICE McBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with
opinion. Justices Gordon and Reyes concurred in the judgment
1 The executor, Salvatore Cerami (Executor), appeals from the
denial of his section 2-619 (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2014))
motion to dismiss the renunciation of will filed by claimant,
Christina Cerami, in the Estate of James F. Cerami, deceased.
2 The record shows that Christina and James were married for
almost 20 years, until James died on January 16, 2013. James
was survived by three children from a previous
marriage-Salvatore, Lawrence, and Dora Ann.
3 On August 14, 2013, Christina opened a probate estate and
filed a petition for letters of administration in the circuit
court. Exhibit A to the petition stated that a "will
dated April 13, 1993, apparently executed by the Decedent,
James F. Cerami, was filed with the Clerk of the Circuit
Court of Cook County" on February 4, 2013, but that
Christina "at this time does not have sufficient
information with which to make any determination regarding
the validity of this will of the Decedent."
4 On January 15, 2015, Christina filed a claim against her
husband's estate for an amount to be determined, in
excess of $100, 000. She sought compensation for
"Custodial Care" pursuant to section 18-1.1 of the
Probate Act of 1975 (Probate Act) (755 ILCS 5/18-1.1 (West
2014)) and "common law" and raised a claim
"for share of earnings and benefits-Breach of premarital
agreement." Christina stated that the parties had
entered into a premarital agreement and contended that she
had "not received all that she is entitled to under
and/or in accordance with the premarital agreement, including
*** income earned during marriage and survivor benefits on
any pension, profit-sharing, or retirement plan or
5 Pursuant to the June 7, 1993, premarital agreement, which
is included in the record, the parties waived their claims
and interests in various property and assets of the other
party and agreed on how to separate their assets in the event
of divorce or death. Specifically, James agreed to "name
CHRISTINA as the person entitled to receive any survivor
benefits to which he is or may be entitled as a result of
having an interest in any pension, profitsharing, or
retirement plan or account." He also agreed to
"maintain a life insurance policy on his life in an
unencumbered amount not less than $100, 000 naming CHRISTINA
the sole beneficiary thereunder so long as the parties remain
married." The parties agreed to "file State and
Federal tax returns as joint or married filing separate,
whichever shall create the lesser total tax liability,"
and agreed to waive certain probate rights, including their
rights "to renounce, to elect to take against, or to
contest" the other party's will.
6 On January 30, 2015, James's son, Salvatore, moved to
dismiss Christina's letters of administration pursuant to
section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS
5/2-619 (West 2014)), arguing that, in the premarital
agreement, Christina had waived her right to serve as
administrator of James's estate. On February 26, 2015,
the court entered an order, denying Christina's custodial
care claims and granting Salvatore leave to file a
cross-petition for probate of the will. Salvatore did so on
March 24, 2015. Two days later, on March 26, 2015,
James's will-dated April 13, 1993-was admitted to
probate, and Salvatore was appointed as independent executor
of the estate.
7 On April 23, 2015, Christina filed an "Amended Claim
for Share of Earnings and Benefits Due to
Breach/Unenforceability of Premarital Agreement."
Christina asked the court to reconsider her custodial claim
because "[f]or the last five years of their marriage,
CHRISTINA sacrificed a successful career to care for JAMES
full time" and the "circumstances in hindsight
raise an 'issue of unconscionability'" regarding
the provision of the premarital agreement disallowing such a
claim. Christina further contended that James had breached
the premarital agreement in a number of ways, including that
he failed to name her "as the person entitled to receive
survivor benefits" on his "pension, profit-sharing
or retirement plan or account"; that he filed
"Married Filing Separately" tax returns, despite
the fact that filing jointly would have created a lesser tax
burden; and that he failed to maintain a life insurance
policy, naming her as the sole beneficiary. Christina
requested that the court either (1) declare the premarital
agreement unenforceable against her or (2) order various
documents to be turned over to her so that "forensic
accounting c[ould] be conducted."
8 Thereafter, the parties engaged in extensive litigation
regarding Christina's claims, including additional
briefing and four days of evidentiary hearings and arguments.
The court found that James breached the premarital agreement
in several ways, including by failing to name Christina as
the beneficiary on two of his retirement accounts, by failing
to name her as the sole beneficiary of his $500, 000 life
insurance policy, and by filing tax returns "married
filing separately," when filing jointly would have
created a lesser tax liability.
9 On various occasions during hearings on Christina's
claims, the court expressed concern about how to calculate
damages, and whether, as a result of James's many
breaches, the court should "take the entire premarital
agreement and throw it out the window." During a hearing
on July 7, 2016, the court noted that Christina waived
"her probate rights" in the premarital agreement,
and that if the court "thr[e]w out the premarital
agreement, she now is a spouse. She has a right to renounce
10 On August 29, 2016, the following exchange occurred:
"THE COURT: *** if the person died married, the probate
act tells us what rights the spouse has. This probate act
enacted in Illinois and at the time of James' death says
she was the spouse, she's entitled to inherit from her
husband, and it sets forth a formula of how she can inherit,
either by will, but no less than her intestate share. And she
can renounce the will and take her one-third, and she has
rights to a spousal claim. The probate act tells me what to
do with spouses' rights and that comes out of the other
spouse's, the deceased spouse's estate. In this case
I don't get that because they both signed a premarital
agreement that waived their right to probate claims, and then
this breach happens five, six different times. So what's
the benefit to Christina of executing a premarital agreement
where she waives all of her probate rights, only to have her
spouse violate and breach the premarital agreement?
COUNSEL FOR THE EXECUTOR: Sure. So-
THE COURT: She's getting it on both sides. You're
saying it's not marital property, she can't have it,
and you're saying there's a premarital agreement, she
can't take the probate property. But she's got to be
entitled to something somewhere, either the premarital
agreement's not valid and she takes her probate rights or
the premarital agreement is valid and she only gets those
rights. But now James breaches it over and over and over and
over again, to the point this is now our fourth or fifth day
of trial and we still can't figure out how many breaches
COUNSEL FOR THE EXECUTOR: Well, I can count them up.
THE COURT: But you want me to hold her to her giving away her
COUNSEL FOR THE EXECUTOR: No, no.
THE COURT: So you want her to have her probate rights, you
want her to be able to renounce the will, you want her to
take her statutory share, you want her to have her spousal
COUNSEL FOR THE EXECUTOR: No, I don't want that.
THE COURT: All right.
COUNSEL FOR THE EXECUTOR: I want the agreement to be
enforced. Christina should get what she was promised, nothing
more or nothing less.
THE COURT: Well, how do I enforce this agreement that James
has breached a half dozen times?
That seems to be the whole problem with this case. You want
James to be able to breach it at any drop of a hat and then
hold Christina to she's waived her probate rights.
I don't know how to calculate the damages. I've been
trying for six months to come up with a scheme to calculate
the damages and I can't do it. But something's going
on here. Marital money was diverted to the IRS. Why I
don't know, at a time that this agreement says you shall
file joint returns. So what's the benefit of that breach?
The same-you know, I don't know what to do *** other than
toss out the entire agreement, as if it never existed."
11 The court then ordered the parties to submit additional
briefing on damages stemming from James's failure to file
joint tax returns, with proposed findings of facts and
calculations of damages.
12 The parties submitted their proposals on September 19,
2016, with Christina proposing approximately $300, 000 in
damages for that breach, representing the difference in tax
liability that would have been owed by the parties had they
filed jointly, plus statutory interest. The Executor argued
that no damages existed, because James paid his taxes out of
his own funds and Christina would not have benefitted from
the money James would have saved by filing jointly. In the
alternative, the Executor stated that if the court decided
that "nominal damages" were appropriate, he
suggested the amount of $10, 000.
13 The court heard argument from the parties on September 22,
2016. Counsel for the Executor argued that Christina had not
adequately established damages from James's breaches, and
accordingly, only "nominal ...