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Appellate Procedure: In re Estate of Shuler (Ind. Ct. App. May 25, 2012)

In re Estate of Shuler (Ind. Ct. App. May 25, 2012)

This case addresses the important issue of whether an order is “final” for purposes of an appeal. Here, the Court of Appeals determined the order before it was not final. Because the appealing party had not completed the necessary steps to appeal the order as an interlocutory order, the Court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

The appellant in this case attempted to appeal an order denying the appellant’s petition to set aside a settlement agreement regarding a dispute over an estate distribution. As the Court explained, following the trial court’s order, the estate remained open. Therefore, the order did not completely dispose of all the proceeding. The Court distinguished its previous decision of In re Guardianship of Phillips, 926 N.E.2d 1103 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010), in which the Court held the denial of a petition to revoke a trust was a final judgment even though the guardianship remained open. The Court discussed differences between a guardianship proceeding and an estate, focusing on the fact that a guardianship could continue indefinitely while an estate would close upon distribution of assets. This distinction makes sense because if certain orders in guardianships were not considered “final,” parties could be deprived of the ability to appeal some orders.

The fatal mistake in this case was the appellant’s failure to include the Rule 54(B) “magic language” entering judgment and expressly determining there is no just reason for delay. Courts require this express language and any party seeking to appeal an order entered under Rule 54 or 56 that does not completely end a case must be sure the language is included.

An interesting issue is whether the order would have been appealable as a final order even if the trial court had included the magic language. A trial court’s mere inclusion of the magic language is not always determinative. To be considered final, an order must “possess the requisite degree of finality, and must dispose of at least a single substantive claim.” Ramco Indus., Inc. v. C & E Corp., 773 N.E.2d 284, 288 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002). It is not entirely clear from the facts disclosed in this opinion whether the trial court could properly have made the appealed order final. Because the failure to include the magic language was dispositive, this question is purely academic. But it is important for appellate practitioners to remember that the use of magic language does not automatically mean an order is a final appealable order. 

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