485 U.S. 478 (1988), 86-1961, Tulsa Professional Collection Services, Inc. v. Pope

Docket Nº:No. 86-1961
Citation:485 U.S. 478, 108 S.Ct. 1340, 99 L.Ed.2d 565, 56 U.S.L.W. 4302
Party Name:Tulsa Professional Collection Services, Inc. v. Pope
Case Date:April 19, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 478

485 U.S. 478 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 1340, 99 L.Ed.2d 565, 56 U.S.L.W. 4302

Tulsa Professional Collection Services, Inc.

v.

Pope

No. 86-1961

United States Supreme Court

April 19, 1988

Argued March 2, 1988

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF OKLAHOMA

Syllabus

Under the nonclaim provision of Oklahoma's Probate Code, creditors' claims against an estate are generally barred unless they are presented to the executor or executrix within two months of the publication of notice of the commencement of probate proceedings. Appellee executrix published the required notice in compliance with the terms of the nonclaim statute and a probate court order, but appellant, the assignee of a hospital's claim for expenses connected with the decedent's final illness, failed to file a timely claim. For this reason, the probate court denied appellant's application for payment, and both the State Court of Appeals and Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention that, in failing to require more than publication notice, the nonclaim statute violated due process. That contention was based upon Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, which held that state action that adversely affects property interests must be accompanied by such notice as is reasonable under the particular circumstances, balancing the State's interest and the due process interests of individuals, and Mennonite Board of Missions v. Adams, 462 U.S. 791, which generally requires actual notice to an affected party whose name and address are "reasonably ascertainable."

Held: If appellant's identity as a creditor was known or "reasonably ascertainable" by appellee (a fact which cannot be determined from the present record), the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted by Mullane and Mennonite, requires that appellant be given notice by mail or such other means as is certain to ensure actual notice. Appellant's claim is properly considered a property interest protected by the Clause. Moreover, the nonclaim statute is not simply a self-executing statute of limitations. Texaco, Inc. v. Short, 454 U.S. 516, distinguished. Rather, the probate court's intimate involvement throughout the probate proceedings -- particularly the court's activation of the statute's time bar by the appointment of an executor or executrix -- is so pervasive and substantial that it must be considered state action. Nor can there be any doubt that the statute may "adversely affect" protected property interests, since untimely claims such as appellant's are completely extinguished. On balance, satisfying creditors'

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substantial, practical need for actual notice in the probate setting is not so cumbersome or impracticable as to unduly burden the State's undeniably legitimate interest in the expeditious resolution of the proceedings, since mail service (which is already routinely provided at several points in the probate process) is inexpensive, efficient, and reasonably calculated to provide actual notice, and since publication notice will suffice for creditors whose identities are not ascertainable by reasonably diligent efforts or whose claims are merely conjectural. Pp. 484-491.

733 P.2d 396, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, STEVENS, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., concurred in the result. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 492.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

[108 S.Ct. 1342] JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves a provision of Oklahoma's probate laws requiring claims "arising upon a contract" generally to be presented to the executor or executrix of the estate within two months of the publication of a notice advising creditors of the commencement of probate proceedings. Okla.Stat., Tit. 58, § 333 (1981). The question presented is whether this provision of notice solely by publication satisfies the Due Process Clause.

I

Oklahoma's Probate Code requires creditors to file claims against an estate within a specified time period, and generally bars untimely claims. Ibid. Such "nonclaim statutes" are almost universally included in state probate codes. See Uniform Probate Code § 3-801, 8 U.L.A. 351 (1983); Falender, Notice to Creditors in Estate Proceedings: What Process is Due?, 63 N. C.L.Rev. 659, 667-668 (1985). Giving creditors a limited time in which to file claims against the estate serves the State's interest in facilitating the administration

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and expeditious closing of estates. See, e.g., State ex rel. Central State Griffin Memorial Hospital v. Reed, 493 P.2d 815, 818 (Okla.1972). Nonclaim statutes come in two basic forms. Some provide a relatively short time period, generally two to six months, that begins to run after the commencement of probate proceedings. Others call for a longer period, generally one to five years, that runs from the decedent's death. See Falender, supra, at 664-672. Most States include both types of nonclaim statutes in their probate codes, typically providing that if probate proceedings are not commenced and the shorter period therefore never is triggered, then claims nonetheless may be barred by the longer period. See, e.g., Ark.Code Ann. §§ 28-50-101(a), (d) (1987) (three months if probate proceedings commenced; five years if not); Idaho Code § 15-3-803(a)(1)(2) (1979) (four months; three years); Mo.Rev.Stat. §§ 473.360(1), (3) (1986) (six months; three years). Most States also provide that creditors are to be notified of the requirement to file claims imposed by the nonclaim statutes solely by publication. See Uniform Probate Code § 3-801, 8 U.L.A. 351 (1983); Falender, supra, at 660, n. 7 (collecting statutes). Indeed, in most jurisdictions, it is the publication of notice that triggers the nonclaim statute. The Uniform Probate Code, for example, provides that creditors have four months from publication in which to file claims. Uniform Probate Code § 3-801, 8 U.L.A. 351 (1983). See also, e.g., Ariz.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 14-3801 (1975); Fla.Stat. § 733.701 (1987); Utah Code Ann. § 75-3-801 (1978).

The specific nonclaim statute at issue in this case, Okla.Stat., Tit. 58, § 333 (1981), provides for only a short time period, and is best considered in the context of Oklahoma probate proceedings as a whole. Under Oklahoma's Probate Code, any party interested in the estate may initiate probate proceedings by petitioning the court to have the will proved. § 22. The court is then required to set a hearing date on the petition, § 25, and to mail notice of the hearing "to all heirs,

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legatees and devisees, at their places of residence," §§ 25, 26. If no person appears at the hearing to contest the will, the court may admit the will to probate on the testimony of one of the subscribing witnesses to the will. § 30. After the will is admitted to probate, the court must order appointment of an executor or executrix, issuing letters testamentary to the named executor or executrix if that person appears, is competent and qualified, and no objections are made. § 101.

Immediately after appointment, the executor or executrix is required to "give notice to the creditors of the deceased." § 331. Proof of compliance with this requirement must be filed with the court. § 332. This notice is to advise creditors that they must present their claims to the executor or executrix within two months of the date of the first publication. As for the method of [108 S.Ct. 1343] notice, the statute requires only publication: "[S]uch notice must be published in some newspaper in [the] county once each week for two (2) consecutive weeks." § 331. A creditor's failure to file a claim within the 2-month period generally bars it forever. § 333. The nonclaim statute does provide certain exceptions, however. If the creditor is out of State, then a claim "may be presented at any time before a decree of distribution is entered." § 333. Mortgages and debts not yet due are also excepted from the 2-month time limit.

This shorter type of nonclaim statute is the only one included in Oklahoma's Probate Code. Delays in commencement of probate proceedings are dealt with not through some independent, longer period running from the decedent's death, see, e.g., Ark.Code Ann. § 28-50-101(d) (1987), but by shortening the notice period once proceedings have started. Section 331 provides that, if the decedent has been dead for more than five years, then creditors have only one month after notice is published in which to file their claims. A similar l-month period applies if the decedent was intestate. § 331.

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II

H. Everett Pope, Jr., was admitted to St. John Medical Center, a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in November 1978. On April 2, 1979, while still at the hospital, he died testate. His wife, appellee JoAnne Pope, initiated probate proceedings in the District Court of Tulsa County in accordance with the statutory scheme outlined above. The court entered an order setting a hearing. Record 8. After the hearing, the court entered an order admitting the will to probate and, following the designation in the will, id. at 2, named appellee as the executrix of the estate. Id. at 12. Letters testamentary were issued, id. at 13, and the court ordered appellee to fulfill her statutory obligation by directing that she "immediately give notice to creditors." Id. at 14. Appellee published notice in the Tulsa Daily Legal News for two consecutive weeks beginning July 17, 1979. The notice advised creditors that they must file any claim they had against the estate within two months of the first publication of the notice. Id. at 16.

Appellant Tulsa Professional Collection Services, Inc., is a subsidiary of St. John Medical Center and the assignee of a claim for expenses connected with the decedent's long stay at that hospital. Neither appellant nor its parent...

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