STEVEN C. GRAY
FRANCES BINDER, ET AL.
THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY Brett A. Kassabian, Judge
W. LEMONS, CHIEF JUSTICE.
appeal, we consider whether a potential beneficiary under a
will may collaterally attack the distribution of the
decedent's estate by challenging the subject matter
jurisdiction of the commissioner of accounts who, without a
referral from the circuit court, gave aid and guidance in the
interpretation of the decedent's will and the
determination of his heirs. Additionally, we clarify the
tribunal from which an appeal of this nature is taken.
Facts and Proceedings
relevant facts of this case are undisputed. Appellant Steven
C. Gray ("Gray") is the step-grandson of Albert F.
Bahnfleth ("Bahnfleth"). At the time of his death
on July 19, 2012, Bahnfleth was widowed, without living
issue, and had assets of approximately half a million
dollars. Shortly thereafter, attorney Richard E. Knight
("Administrator") qualified as Administrator of
Bahnfleth's estate in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County
("circuit court"). The Administrator initially
believed that Bahnfleth had died intestate, but he later
discovered a 1966 copy of Bahnfleth's will, which was
thereafter admitted to probate. The will provided that if
Bahnfleth's wife predeceased him, his estate would be
divided between his parents, his only sibling, and his
step-daughter, Jean Gray ("Jean"). The devise to
Jean expressed Bahnfleth's "desire that she use it
for the education of my step-grandson, Steven C. Gray."
Each of the family members named in the will, including Jean,
November 1, 2013, the Administrator wrote a letter to John H.
Rust Jr., the Commissioner of Accounts for Fairfax County
("Commissioner"). Although the letter is not
reproduced in the record on this appeal, the parties
submitted a consolidated statement of facts that was signed
by the circuit court judge who presided over this case.
According to the statement of facts, the Administrator
inquired in the letter whether the Commissioner could hear
issues of heir determination and will interpretation
concerning Bahnfleth's estate. The Commissioner responded
affirmatively, and, thereafter, the Administrator requested a
hearing for this purpose. The Commissioner provided adequate
notice to all parties and scheduled an evidentiary hearing.
In advance of the hearing, the Administrator submitted
several documents to the Commissioner including "a
petition styled 'Petition to Commissioner of Accounts for
Aide (sic) and Direction: For Construction of the Will of
Albert Frank Bahnfleth, Jr., and Determination of Identity
and Shares of Heirs & Beneficiaries.'" In his
petition, the Administrator requested:
the Commissioner of Accounts provide the administrator with
the aide [sic] and direction in determining the following:
A. The construction of the decedent's Will[.]
B. The determination of the rightful beneficiaries of the
Will, if any; the determination if any of the dispositions
under the Will have lapsed; and the determination of the
beneficiaries' respective share of the estate under the
Will, if any.
C. The determination of the intestate heirs of the
decedent's estate, if any, and the determination of the
rightful shares of the decedent's estate for each
intestate heir, if any.
D. That the validity of the assignments between 27 paternal
heirs and Kemp and Associates be established and that the
administrator be authorized to make distribution in
accordance with said assignments.
E. That the administrator may proceed and conclude the
administration of this estate under the direction and
protection of the Commissioner of Accounts.
Commissioner conducted an evidentiary hearing at which Gray
appeared with counsel. The Commissioner filed a report after
the hearing, which described the evidence and argument that
each party presented at the hearing. Gray presented evidence
of his close relationship with Bahnfleth and argued that
Bahnfleth intended to leave him half of his estate. Gray
asked the "Commissioner to prioritize the decedent's
intention to benefit Gray and avoid intestacy." The
Appellees, Bahnfleth's first cousin, Francis Binder, and
his 24 other cousins or their surviving descendants
("Cousins") argued that the language regarding
using the funds for Gray's education was precatory. The
Cousins further argued that the bequest to Jean was not
encumbered with a trust provision, and therefore showed only
an intent to benefit Jean.
January 5, 2015, the Commissioner filed his report, holding
that the provision regarding Gray in the will had lapsed.
Specifically, the Commissioner determined that with
Jean's death, all bequests in Bahnfleth's will lapsed
pursuant to Code § 64.2-418, and the estate passed
pursuant to the law governing intestate distribution. The
Commissioner found that Bahnfleth's only heirs were his
Cousins, and therefore they each took a share under the rules
of intestacy. With respect to the provision of the will which
provided that Jean use the money for Gray's education,
the Commissioner agreed with the Cousins' argument that
it was precatory, and noted that even if the provision
imposed the creation of a trust, Gray had completed his
education and the trust's purpose had been achieved.
filed exceptions to the January 2015 report. The circuit
court entered an order confirming the report. Gray then filed
a motion to reconsider, arguing the circuit court "must
give a liberal construction to the will" to carry out
Bahnfleth's intent to benefit Gray and avoid intestacy.
The court held a hearing on the motion and heard argument
from counsel. On March 13, 2015, the court entered an order
holding that "the Commissioner of Accounts has properly
interpreted the law on the applicable facts in this case,
" and "Gray is not entitled to take under the
will." Gray appealed that order to this Court, but we
refused Gray's petition for appeal and his petition for
rehearing. See Gray v. Binder, Rec. No. 150899.
Meanwhile, the probate process continued with the
Administrator tending to Bahnfleth's estate and preparing
it for distribution among the heirs identified by the
4, 2016, the Commissioner filed a routine debts and demands
report with the circuit court, authorizing the Administrator
to "distribute the remainder of the estate to the
beneficiaries after the final payments of any administrative
expenses and debts known to the fiduciary." Upon
receiving a copy of the May 2016 report, Gray filed
exceptions challenging the jurisdiction of the Commissioner
to issue its January 2015 report. On June 9, 2016, the
circuit court entered an order confirming the May 2016
report. Gray moved for reconsideration and to vacate the
Commissioner's May 2016 report. In his motion, Gray
argued that based on this Court's recent holding in
Parrish v. Federal National Mortgage Association,
292 Va. 44, 787 S.E.2d 116 (2016),
the Commissioner of Accounts clearly lacked jurisdiction to
hear the Petition filed by the Administrator, and that,
because the court's jurisdiction on considering his
Reports and the Exceptions filed was derivative of the
Commissioner's, the court likewise lacked jurisdiction to
do anything concerning the ...