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Decree Definition In Rhode Island Law

Rhode Island case law is replete with decisions regarding the time for taking appeals from order and decrees of the Probate Court.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has "unequivocally held that the time for taking an appeal from an order or decree of the Probate Court begins to run from the time the decree is entered".

In re Estate of Speight, 739 A.2d 229, 231 (R.I. 1999) (citing Yetner v. Corkery Genealogical, Inc., 706 A.2d 1331, 1331 (R.I. 1998); Waz v. Estate of Judge, 417 A.2d 326, 328 (R.I.1980)).

The question still remains, however, as to what constitutes an order or decree for purposes of Rhode Island General Law § 33-23-1. Fortunately, the topic has also been discussed by our Supreme Court on numerous occasions.

In In re Oliveira, the appellant objected to a motion to dismiss his probate appeal on the grounds that the probate judge's written opinion was a decision, and not an order or decree as required by § 33-23-1. See In re Oliveira, No. 99-15 A, 2001 WL 68356 (R.I. Jan. 29, 2001).

The Supreme Court disagreed, and stated that "a 'decree' is a 'judicial fiat or pronouncement that determines a matter in controversy. " Id. at 2 (citing Raymond v. Raymond, 284 A.2d 64, 67-68 (1971)).

It also declared that a "decree" is a "decision made in our equity courts, probate courts or other tribunals." Id. (citing Raymond, 284 A.2d at 68.)

In making these determinations, the court rejected "semantical exactitude or excessive formalism in determining what constitutes a proper judicial decree" and instead looked for a "judicial act which settles the respective rights and claims of the litigants." See Oliveira, WL 68356 at 2; Raymond, 284 A.2d at 68.

The court also noted that a decree becomes effective when "it is signed by the judge and entered by the clerk." Id.

In another opinion, the Supreme Court held that "only those orders of the Probate Courts that contain an element of finality, including the appointment of an executor, an administrator C.T.A., or an administrator, or an order admitting or refusing to admit a will to probate, are orders that are sufficiently final and thereby appealable to the Superior Court pursuant to G.L.1956 § 33-23-1." Burford v. Estate of Kelly, 699 A.2d 854, 856 (R.I. 1997).

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