In Gray v. Binder, the Supreme Court of Virginia clarified the jurisdiction and power of the Commissioners of Accounts, explaining that “[a] commissioner’s authority to assist the circuit court with the settlement of estates is simply an extension of the circuit court’s subject matter jurisdiction to administer estates.” Op. at 8.
In the context of a will dispute, the Court rejected a jurisdictional challenge to the Commissioner’s powers, determining that it was empowered to hear a motion for aid and direction from the administrator of an estate, to give guidance in the interpretation of a will and the determination of heirs, and that the Commissioner’s determination would constitute the opinion of the Court, if otherwise undisturbed.
The impact of Gray remains to be seen, outside of the context of a will dispute. For example, although not directly addressed in the opinion, the office of the Commissioner of Accounts also provides oversight of the accounting of trustees under deeds of trusts under Virginia Code § 64.2-1309.
A copy of the Court’s opinion is available here.
This matter arose in connection with a will dispute, administered under Virginia law. Without filing a lawsuit, the Administrator of a Decedent’s Estate requested that the Circuit Court’s Commissioner of Accounts interpret a will to determine the beneficiaries among its potential claimants. After an aggrieved claimant unsuccessfully attempted to challenge such determination, the Commissioner filed the mandatory Report with the Circuit Court providing for distribution pursuant to his determination of the respective beneficiaries. The aggrieved claimant filed exceptions, challenging the jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Accounts to interpret and determine the beneficiaries. The Circuit Court ultimately approved the Commissioner’s Report, upholding the Commissioner’s authority and jurisdiction, which resulted in the present appeal.
In rejecting the jurisdictional challenge, the Supreme Court provided an overview of the role of the Commissioner of Accounts and his relation to the Circuit Court. Although “Virginia circuit courts have been vested with jurisdiction over fiduciary matters, including the administration of estates[,] [i]t would be “impracticable” for circuit courts to perform every aspect of estate administration.” Op. at 6. Consequently, “[t]he Commonwealth established the office of the Commissioner of Accounts ‘to afford a prompt, certain, efficient, and inexpensive method’ for the settlement of fiduciaries’ accounts and the distribution of estates.” Op. at 7.
The Court traced the evolution of the Commissioner of Accounts, from the “long-established position of the Commissioner in Chancery” who historically was “an officer appointed by the chancellor to aid him in the proper and expeditious performance of his official duties.” Op. at 7. “A good commissioner is the right arm of the court, and his services are indispensable to the due administration of justice.” Thus, “‘the office of commissioner in chancery is one of the most important known in the administration of justice.’ Nonetheless, commissioners serve to assist the court, not to supplant it.” Op. at 7.
“[F]rom the very necessity of their appointment and the nature of their office, their work is subject to the review of the court. It may accept or reject it, in whole or in part, as its judgment, upon such review, may dictate, whether it be of law or fact.” Op. at 7 (citations omitted).
Accordingly, the Court rejected the contention that the Commissioner lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear a petition for aid and direction, or otherwise lacked equitable jurisdiction. The Court noted that “Commissioners are appointed by the judges of each circuit court and are removable at the pleasure of the court. Code § 64.2-1200. They are not lower tribunals from which appeals are taken. When a commissioner files a report, it becomes the opinion of the circuit court if no exceptions are filed. Code § 64.2-1213. When exceptions are filed, the court can accept or reject the report in whole or in part. Code § 64.2-1212.” Op. at 8-9. Given these provisions, the Court rejected the argument that commissioners have only limited probate jurisdiction, as opposed to equitable jurisdiction: “A commissioner’s authority to assist the circuit court with the settlement of estates is simply an extension of the circuit court’s subject matter jurisdiction to administer estates.” Op.at 9.
The Court therefore rejected the jurisdictional attack upon the Commissioner’s authority, and affirmed the decision of the trial court. Op. at 10.
A concurring opinion distinguished the Commissioner’s authority to hear a petition for aid and direction absent a court referral, unless it related to the settlement of accounts under Virginia Code § 64.2-1209, but noted that, “[a]n account cannot be settled if the executor does not know who is entitled to distributions from the estate.” Op. at 12. However, the Court also noted that the Circuit Court could appoint the Commissioner to hear other matters, and that the parties could nevertheless consent to the authority of such Commissioner.