4th DCA: What's it mean to have "rendered services to an estate" when seeking attorneys fees in probate litigation?
Duncombe v. Adderly, --- So.2d ----, 2008 WL 4489234 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct 08, 2008)
If a beneficiary of an estate wants to get his attorney's fees paid with assets of the estate, the statute he'll have to hang his hat on is F.S. 733.106(3), which provides as follows:
(3) Any attorney who has rendered services to an estate may be awarded reasonable compensation from the estate.
The big question under this statute is always: what's it mean to "render services" to an estate? In the linked-to case the probate court ruled that the winning side in litigation involving who gets appointed personal representative didn't qualify for fees under F.S. 733.106(3). Wrong answer. Here's how the 4th DCA summarized the law on this point in its reversal of the probate court's order denying attorneys fees:
Duncombe . . . sought attorney's fees incurred during these proceedings under section 733.106(3), which provides “any attorney who has rendered services to an estate may be awarded reasonable compensation from the estate.” The trial court believed that there had to be an enhancement in value or an advancement of the testator's intent as set forth in the will, citing Samuels v. Estate of Ahern, 436 So.2d 1096, 1097 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983), . . .
We do not read Samuels that narrowly. Preventing the appointment of a personal representative named in the will is a basis for the award of attorney's fees, Baumer v. Howard, 542 So.2d 400 (Fla. 1st DCA 1989), as is obtaining the removal of a representative, In re Estate of Eisenberg, 433 So.2d 542 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983).
Appellees argue that we should affirm because no abuse of discretion has been demonstrated, but that is not the standard of review. Under the undisputed facts in this case, neither Adderly, a transferee of some of the property, nor her lawyer, could have served as personal representative if an interested party objected. The error in this case involved the interpretation of the words “benefit to the estate” in section 733.106(3). We review statutory interpretation de novo. San Martin v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 983 So.2d 620 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008). Reversed.