Long v. Willis, — So.3d —-, 2011 WL 3587411 (Fla. 2d DCA Aug 17, 2011)
Most people (including most lawyers) assume that a minor’s parents, i.e., a minor’s "natural guardians" under F.S. 744.301, can make all decisions on behalf of their children, and that this authority extends to voting on behalf of their children under F.S. 733.301 with respect to who gets appointed personal representative (PR) of an estate when applying the "majority in interest of the heirs" test. WRONG answer: under subsection (2) of F.S. 733.301, a minor’s parent/natural guardian is NOT authorized to vote on behalf of his or her child with respect to who gets appointed PR; you need a court-appointed guardian of the property to vote on behalf of the minor.
This all makes sense if you remember two points:  any time a minor (i.e., someone under 18) inherits $15,000+, a court-appointed guardian of the property is mandatory; and  a PR is only required for estates having a value of at least $75,000 (i.e., estates too large to qualify for summary administration). In other words, if the estate is too small to trigger the $15,000-guardian requirement, it’s probably too small to need a PR, and vice versa.
In this case the parent/natural guardian of one of the decedent’s heirs sought to vote on behalf of her three minor children for the appointment of PR of their father’s estate. The decedent, who died intestate, had married and divorced twice prior to his death, so his only heirs were his two adult children from his first marriage and his three minor children from his second marriage. The appellant in this case was the decedent’s second ex-wife and the mother of his three minor children.
The 2d DCA does an excellent job of dissecting the interrelated probate statutes and rules at play in this type of situation while also delivering solid practical advice for how the different (and apparently conflicting) timing requirements can all be made to work together in a reasonable manner. This kind of appellate-court-sanctioned statutory road map is gold for practicing probate lawyers.
[1.] Is a court-appointed guardian of the property necessary to exercise a minor’s vote in the appointment of a PR? YES
Ms. Long argues that as the natural guardian of Mr. Long’s three minor children, she represents the majority in interest of the heirs and, therefore, has the right to select the personal representative. Significantly, the statute does not entitle a natural guardian to such a right. Rather, section 733.301(2) provides that “[a] guardian of the property of a ward who if competent would be entitled to appointment as, or to select, the personal representative may exercise the right to select the personal representative.” (Emphasis added.)
Ms. Long admits that the court never appointed her as the guardian of the property of her children, but she nevertheless claims that as their parent and natural guardian, under In re Estate of Phillips, 190 So.2d 15, 17 (Fla. 4th DCA 1966), she should have this power. In Phillips, which involved a dispute over the domicile of the decedent at the time of his death, the Fourth District affirmed that the decedent’s five-year-old son, acting through his mother and natural guardian, the decedent’s former spouse, was entitled to preference in selecting the administrator under section 732.44, Florida Statutes (1965), because he was the decedent’s sole heir and next of kin. Id.
After the Phillips decision, the legislature replaced section 732.44, which gave appointment preference to the decedent’s “next of kin” but provided no guidance for circumstances in which the next of kin was legally incompetent. The replacement statute, section 733.301, addresses the issue of legally incompetent heirs by clearly and unambiguously limiting the right to select a personal representative to the guardian of the property of such heirs, not to their natural parents. The legislature appears to have the right to create this limitation.
Thus, the probate court correctly ruled that Ms. Long could not vote for her children.
[2.] If a parent is served with a 20-day formal notice of someone else’s petition for appointment as PR, does this parent have only 20 days to petition for and obtain an order appointing a guardian of the property and for that guardian to vote/object on behalf of the minor? NO
We conclude the probate court erred in ruling that Mr. Long’s children were time-barred from challenging the right of their aunt to appointment and that it was without authority to allow these children to seek the appointment of a guardian of the property. First, although Florida Probate Rule 5.040(a)(2) provides that where an interested person on whom formal notice is served does not serve written defenses within twenty days, the probate court may consider the pleading ex parte, Florida courts treat this rule as merely procedural; it is “‘in no sense’ a statute of limitations or a mandatory non-claim provision.” Tanner v. Estate of Tanner, 476 So.2d 793, 794 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985). Applying this reasoning in Tanner, the First District held that where the decedent’s beneficiaries filed a joint answer to the petition for administration asserting defenses five days after the time for answers had expired but before the hearing on the petition for administration and the order granting letters, the answer was timely filed. Id. Here, as in Tanner, Ms. Long, on behalf of Mr. Long’s minor children, filed the objection to the appointment of Ms. Willis as personal representative just four days after the twenty-day answer period expired and well before the probate court issued the order granting letters. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court had the authority to consider and should have considered the minor children’s objection before the issuance of letters.
Second, we are convinced that the probate court had authority to allow Mr. Long’s minor children the opportunity to participate in the vote of the heirs. See § 733.301(1)(b)(2). By requiring a guardian of the property, section 733.301(2) creates significant procedural impediments for minor children who wish to participate in the selection of a personal representative in a contested proceeding. When there is no conflict within a family, such children may well have time to obtain a guardian of the property before the petition for administration is filed. But in a case like this, even if the mother had understood the law, she could not realistically have obtained a guardian of the property for the children and allowed that guardian to vote for the children within the twenty-day response time. We conclude that the probate court had authority and should have allowed Ms. Long a reasonable time to obtain a guardian of the property to vote for the children.