If you’re going to sue a decedent’s probate estate, the first question you’ll need to ask yourself is if your lawsuit is going to be subject to Florida’s ultra-short limitations periods for probate creditor claims. And to answer that question you’ll need to figure out if the relief you’re seeking falls under the broad statutory definition for probate creditor “claims” found in F.S. 731.201(4), which provides as follows:
“Claim” means a liability of the decedent, whether arising in contract, tort, or otherwise, and funeral expense. The term does not include an expense of administration or estate, inheritance, succession, or other death taxes.
When you’re reading this definition it’s important to note the type of claims that are categorically excluded. In other words, if you’re suing the estate to recover “an expense of administration” or if you’re suing the estate to recover unpaid “estate, inheritance, succession, or other death taxes,” you’re not litigating a Florida probate creditor claim.
Are real property title disputes probate creditor “claims”? YES
But what if you’re suing the estate to dispute ownership of real property titled in a decedent’s name? Is that a probate creditor “claim”? If Florida had adopted the Uniform Probate Code’s definition of “claim” the answer would be simple: it’s not a creditor claim because all title disputes are categorically excluded from the definition of “claim” found in UPC sect. 1-201(6), which provides in relevant part as follows:
“Claims,” in respect to estates of decedents and protected persons, includes liabilities of the decedent or protected person, whether arising in contract, in tort, or otherwise … The term does not include … demands or disputes regarding title of a decedent … to specific assets alleged to be included in the estate.
Since Florida’s definition of “claim” is silent on the issue of real property title disputes you might be tempted to argue they’re not included in the definition and therefore your lawsuit isn’t subject to the creditor-claim filing deadlines. And you’d be wrong.
In this case the claimant filed a statement of claim against the estate disputing, on equitable grounds, ownership of four items of real property titled in the decedent’s name. The probate court denied the claim finding “that the relief sought by Mr. Ford is not a probate claim against the Estate.” Wrong answer; real property title disputes are creditor claims. So saith the 3d DCA:
[T]he probate court found that the relief sought by Billy was not a probate claim against the estate. The statement of claim provides that Billy sought the “return of the properties via equitable relief.” On appeal, Billy cites to Arwood v. Sloan, 560 So. 2d 1251 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1990), for the proposition that probate claims can involve issues of disputed ownership in real property. In Arwood, “Plaintiff filed a claim against Decedent’s probate estate, claiming that the real property, funds in the bank, and other assets in Decedent’s name, were his sole property, and that title to the same had been placed in Decedent’s name for his convenience.” Id. at 1251. Billy also cites to Sanchez v. Sanchez De Davila, 547 So. 2d 943 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1989), in which the parties claimed injunctive relief to enjoin distribution of funds. Id. at 944. The probate claim involved the question of ownership of approximately $2,000,000 held in trust bank accounts. Id. We therefore find that the trial court erred as Billy’s claim for equitable relief involving the disputed ownership of the four real properties is not outside the purview of probate claims.