Connecticut's high court has unanimously reversed a ruling against a Weston woman who filed suit for control over a victim's compensation award she received on behalf of her daughter after the death of her husband in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Carolyne Hynes was pregnant with her daughter, Olivia, when her husband, Thomas Hynes, was killed in the tragedy while working for Thomson Financial Services at the World Trade Center. Following Olivia's birth in March 2002, she and Carolyne were approved as beneficiaries of the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, which awarded Olivia approximately $1.3 million and Carolyne $1.2 million. Olivia's share of the award was paid to her mother as a representative payee.
Connecticut's Probate Court initially assigned attorney Brock T. Dubin as guardian ad litem for Olivia, and in 2008 a successor, Sharon M. Jones, was appointed by Probate Judge Anthony DePanfilis. In the meantime, Hynes moved from her original home town of Norwalk to a new house in Weston. During probate proceedings DePanfilis alleged Hynes had misspent some of the money awarded to Olivia, which Hynes' attorney, Michael P. Kaelin, principal at Stamford's Cummings & Lockwood, said was false and unsupported by evidence.
The Probate Court insisted that Olivia's share of the benefits be placed into a guardianship account and ultimately froze the funds. On the advice of Kaelin, Hynes filed a motion in 2013 to dismiss Olivia's guardian, arguing the probate court lacked jurisdiction. The motion was denied by DePanfilis. Hynes in turn sued Jones for control of Olivia's account. Her claim was dismissed in Stamford Superior Court in 2015. Hynes appealed to the Connecticut Appellate Court, which affirmed the Superior Court's dismissal in 2017.
On appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, Hynes reiterated that the fund award was paid to her as a representative payee for her minor child, not as a representative of her husband’s estate, and that the fund never intended the money to be subject to Probate Court jurisdiction. Hynes also asserted that state law §45a-629(a) only authorizes the appointment of a guardian for a minor ‘‘when a minor is entitled to property,’’ and Olivia was not entitled to property because the fund award was paid directly to Hynes. Hynes also argued that the Probate Court’s jurisdiction was limited to property from a decedent’s estate, and that the fund award was not part of Thomas Hynes’ estate.
Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson wrote for the court: “We agree with the plaintiff that the Probate Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to appoint a guardian of the minor child’s estate. Specifically, we first conclude that a fund award paid to the plaintiff as a 'representative payee’ did not constitute a part of the decedent’s estate. We further conclude that the award does not constitute property to which the minor child is ‘entitled’ under §45a-629(a), and does not constitute property ‘belonging’ to the minor child under §45a-631(a).”
The court observed that “state statutes did not grant the Probate Court jurisdiction to monitor the plaintiff’s use of the fund award or to prohibit the plaintiff from using that award in the absence of that court’s approval.”
Reached Monday, Kaelin, who worked pro bono on the case, said Hynes was happy with the result. “My client's really pleased with the decision and she is very grateful to the Connecticut Supreme Court for reviewing the case,” he said. “They did the right thing, and we’re grateful they decided to do that.”
The ruling reverses the judgment of the Appellate Court, remanding to that court with direction to reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand with direction to render judgment sustaining Hynes' appeal.
Jones did not respond to a request for comment.