Illinois Appellate Court Decides Jurisdiction and Timeliness to File Motion

The Illinois Appellate Court for the First District affirmed a decision from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Probate Division. In this case, when James Cerami died on Jan. 16, 2013, he had been married to Christina Cerami for nearly 20 years. About seven months after James’s death, Christina opened a probate estate and petitioned for letters of administration maintaining that although a will was apparently executed by James and filed with the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County on Feb. 4, 2013, Christina “at this time does not have sufficient information with which to make any determination regarding the validity of this will of the decedent.”

Christina filed a claim against James’s estate on Jan. 15, 2015 seeking in excess of $100,000 for “custodial care” and alleging that due to a breach of their premarital agreement, she was owed a “share of earning and benefits.”

In line with the party’s 1993 premarital agreement, James was to name Christina as entitled to any survivor benefits and as the sole beneficiary of a life insurance policy “in an unencumbered amount not less than $100,000.”

Both of them had agreed to file taxes so as to minimize the shared tax burden. They waived their right “to renounce, to erect to take against or to contest” the other’s will.

Approximately two weeks later, Salvatore Cerami, one of James’s three children from a previous marriage, moved to dismiss Christina’s letters of administration as the premarital agreement was violated.

The trial court denied Christina’s custodial care claim and Salvatore filed a cross-petition for probate of the will, which was admitted to probate on March 26, 2015, with Salvatore as the executor.

Christina filed an amended claim on April 23, 2015 alleging that James breached the agreement by not naming her as entitled to survivor benefits, failed to maintain a life insurance policy with her as the beneficiary and created an increased tax burden by filing “Married Filing Separately.”

Christina argued that in the last five years of James’s life, she gave up a successful career to care for him full time, raising issues of unconscionability.

The trial court emphasized that James had repeatedly breached the premarital agreement but his estate was now using it to mandate that Christina was not entitled even to her one-third share of the property, which Illinois law provides from a spouse who dies intestate. Because neither party nor the court was able to calculate damages, the trial court held the premarital agreement void and authorized Christina to file her renunciation, spousal claim and seek a spousal reward and found no reason to delay enforcement or appeal.

Christina filed the renunciations on Jan. 24, 2017, about 4 months later. Salvatore, as executor, moved to dismiss Christina’s renunciation as barred by the statute of limitation, which requires it to be filed within seven months of the will being admitted to probate.

The trial court emphasized that the order voiding the premarital agreement was entered by the previous trial judge and that the new trial court judge may not review the other judge’s orders.

The second trial court judge found that Christina should be permitted to file her renunciation if she filed within six months of the prior order authorizing her to do so and found no reason for delay of enforcement or appeal.  Salvatore appealed.

The Illinois Appellate Court examined the Sept. 22, 2016 order entered by the first trial judge. The appellate court concluded that more than seven months had passed between the will being admitted to probate and the order granting Christina the right to file her renunciation when it stated she “shall be allowed to file for all things allowed by spouses, including but not limited to spouse allowance, statutory share and custodial care claims, renunciation of will.”

Moreover, because the original trial court judge established no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal of that order, if Salvatore had wished to dispute Christina’s right, he could have done so at the hearings leading up to the orders or a timely motion to reconsider afterward, not in review or a subsequent order or whether her renunciation was untimely.

Moreover, the appellate court invoked equitable tolling, as Christina was barred from filing the renunciation until the premarital agreement was found void, tolling the period where she was able to file until the Sept. 22, 2016 order.  Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial judge’s decision allowing Christina to file her renunciations.

In re Estate of James F. Cerami, 2018 IL App (1st) 172073 (Sept. 28, 2018).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling probate litigation matters, guardianship cases, jury trials, appeals and business litigation matters for individuals, families and businesses for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Inverness, Des Plaines, Deerfield, Northfield, Palos Heights, Western Springs, Westchester, Franklin Park, Frankfort, Wheeling, Itasca, Schiller Park, Schaumburg, Streamwood, Steger, South Chicago Heights, Barrington, Hillside, Burr Ridge, Country Club Hills, Elk Grove Village, East Hazel Crest, Elgin, Matteson, Olympia Fields, Chicago (South Chicago, Roscoe Village, Sauganash, Southport, South Shore, Hyde Park, Little Italy, Cathedral District, Chrysler Village, DePaul University Area, East Garfield Park, Gladstone Park, Horner Park, Humboldt Park), Niles, Lisle, Fox River Grove and Evergreen Park, Ill.

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