As trusts and estates attorneys, we spend our professional lives planning for and adjudicating property issues. In fact, our probate code explicitly tells us at F.S. 731.105 that probate proceedings “are in rem proceedings.”

But before any of this property finds its way into one of our probate courts, someone has to die. And each one of those deaths is its own unique story. How should we think about those stories? Or discuss them with our clients? Or, as is sometimes necessary, address them in court?

It’s not something we’re taught in law school.

Which brings me to a beautifully written and thoughtful guide to writing—and reading—about death that trusts and estates attorneys should find especially interesting. It’s a collection of essays by Miami’s own Edwidge Danticat, entitled The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. Part philosophy, part literary criticism, part prayer, Danticat explores death both in real life and in art.

Divided into short chapters with titles such as “Ars Moriendi,” “Wanting to Die,” “Close Calls,” and “Feetfirst,” Danticat’s The Art of Death is a quick read, but it’s packed with clear-eyed wisdom and grace that sticks with you long after you’ve put it down.

As an added bonus Danticat peppers her essays with a treasure trove of “on topic” quotes by dozens of writers, including Tolstoy, Camus, Chekhov, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and Ta-Nehisi Coates. One of my favorites is this quote from The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, which Danticat used as an epigraph.

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books.

Good stuff; highly recommended.

Elizabeth Hurley and her son, Damian

Fame and fortune often come together, and sometimes that combustible brew spills over into the world of trusts and estates. Case in point: an inter-vivos trust created decades ago by multi-billionaire Peter Bing was recently at the center of a Los Angeles court battle involving claims by Damian Hurley, son of actress Elizabeth Hurley, and film producer Steve Bing. As reported in Elizabeth Hurley’s Son Prevails in Inheritance Fight, Steve “accused his father of ‘coordinating’ with his sister Mary to ‘orchestrate a massive money-grab,’ which would hurt his children, but enrich her own.”

The legal battle kicked off when the trustee filed a petition seeking to narrowly define the trust’s use of the word “grandchildren” to exclude grandchildren born out of wedlock — which (surprise!) results in Steve Bing’s children getting cut out (Mary’s children fare just fine under this interpretation). But for the large sums at stake and the celebrity references, this is run-of-the-mill stuff for most trusts and estates litigators. What’s interesting about this case — at least from a Florida-law point of view — is what’s NOT contested.

Ambiguity vs. Reformation:

Based on the contents of the trial court order, the litigation seems to have been framed exclusively around a single question: was the trust’s use of the word “grandchildren” ambiguous? According to the trustee, it was. According to the trial court judge, not even close. No ambiguity = no change = Steve Bing’s kids don’t get cut out. Here’s an excerpt from the order:

[T[he Trusts’ use of the word “grandchild” offers no ambiguity otherwise unless one accepts Trustee’s foisted definition that restricts, among others, grandchildren born out of wedlock to one of Settlor’s children unless they lived with one of Settlor’s children while a minor or as a regular member of the household. These restrictive, limiting, further definitions unreasonably distort the term’s clear and plain use in the Trusts.

These cases are usually litigated after the trust’s settlor is dead, which means we all get to speculate about what was actually going through his head when he signed his trust agreement. Not so in this case. Here, Peter Bing, the settlor, submitted an affidavit saying that the narrow definition the trial judge says is now being “foisted” on the court is exactly what he had in mind when he signed his trust agreement back in 1980 (long before any of his grandchildren were born). Sounds like Peter’s telling us his trust agreement doesn’t say what he intended it to say when he signed it. That fact’s important.

If this case were being litigated in Florida, you wouldn’t limit yourself to an “ambiguity” strategy; you’d also seek “reformation” of the document to accurately reflect what the settlor (Peter Bing) is telling us he actually intended to say when he signed his trust agreement. In Florida, the statutory vehicle for this argument is F.S. 736.0415 (Reformation to correct mistakes), which is based on Sect. 415 of the Uniform Trust Code (UTC). California hasn’t adopted the UTC.

Here’s how the UTC explains the difference between an “ambiguity” argument and a “reformation” argument:

Reformation is different from resolving an ambiguity. Resolving an ambiguity involves the interpretation of language already in the instrument. Reformation, on the other hand, may involve the addition of language not originally in the instrument, or the deletion of language originally included by mistake, if necessary to conform the instrument to the settlor’s intent. Because reformation may involve the addition of language to the instrument, or the deletion of language that may appear clear on its face, reliance on extrinsic evidence is essential. …

Reformation of inter vivos instruments to correct a mistake of law or fact is a long-established remedy. … This section applies whether the mistake is one of expression or one of inducement. A mistake of expression occurs when the terms of the trust misstate the settlor’s intention, fail to include a term that was intended to be included, or include a term that was not intended to be included. A mistake in the inducement occurs when the terms of the trust accurately reflect what the settlor intended to be included or excluded but this intention was based on a mistake of fact or law. … Mistakes of expression are frequently caused by scriveners’ errors while mistakes of inducement often trace to errors of the settlor.

By the way, there may be a good reason for why a reformation argument wasn’t made. On the other hand, maybe it was made and it was just ignored in the trial court’s order. If this case gets appealed, we may learn more then.

Finally, trust-reformation actions aren’t silver bullets. Even if your trust settlor is still around, and he’s ready and willing to testify, as I’ve previously reported here, the types of “mistakes” courts are authorized to fix in reformation actions are mistakes based on facts existing at the time the document was signed … not years later when events have taken a turn the settlor didn’t expect (like wanting to favor one line of descendants over another).

Biology vs. Settlor Intent:

The trial court order refers to “biological” grandchildren in one form or another on six separate occasions. The implication clearly being that if there’s a genetic link between a settlor and his children’s children, they’re his grandchildren. End of story. Well, it ain’t necessarily so. When construing trust terms the goal is figuring out settlor intent … even if it’s contrary to the “biological” facts.

For example, as explained in a fascinating 2d DCA opinion I wrote about here, for trust-construction purposes someone can be a settlor’s “blood relative,” even if DNA testing proves conclusively that the settlor’s not biologically related to that person. Does this make sense? Yes, if your primary goal is figuring out the settlor’s intent at the time he signed his trust agreement. When construing trusts it’s what’s going on in the settlor’s head at the time he signed his document that matters most, not the empirically-verifiable facts in existence years later at the time the trust is being litigated.

Which brings us back to Peter Bing’s use of the word “grandchildren” in his trust. Back in 1980 he might very well have intended to include all of his biological grandchildren as future beneficiaries, on the other hand, maybe he really did intend to exclude grandchildren born out of wedlock. Even if you think this case is all a subterfuge for Peter’s after-the-fact attempt to cut certain disfavored descendants out of the family fortune, it’s a fair question, and one that’s completely ignored in the trial court order.

This beautiful park in Macon, Georgia, no longer exists because the guy who donated it in the 1910s didn’t predict that the world would become less openly racist over time.

If you’re into podcasts (who isn’t?), and you happen to make your living as a trusts and estates attorney, you’re going to love a recent episode of the Future Perfect podcast entitled Dead people leave billions in their wills. How long do we have to listen to them? Here’s an excerpt from the show notes:

We don’t let dead people vote.

We don’t let dead people run for political office.

But we do let dead people donate money that shapes the world, using charitable trusts.

And as we learn on this episode of the Future Perfect podcast, letting zombie donors pull the strings often doesn’t turn out all that well….

Ray Madoff, a professor at Boston College Law School, wrote a whole book about people donating from beyond the grave, called Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of America’s Dead.

She says the all-powerful zombie donor is a relatively new American phenomenon.

For the first century or so after the American Revolution, the idea that the dead would have much control over the resources of the world seemed very undemocratic. But then came the Gilded Age, and the rise of a class of unprecedentedly rich people. Some of these robber barons were willing to spread their wealth around — in exchange for immortality. And that immortality came in the form of charitable trusts that lasted forever.

In the decades since, perpetual charitable trusts have become the norm.

The problem? Forever is a long time. And when donors write specific instructions in their trusts, they can’t predict the ways the world will change.

Click here for the podcast audio link. Great stuff, highly recommended.

Alexander v. Harris, — So.3d —, 2019 WL 2147281 (Fla. 2d DCA May 17, 2019)

The creditor protected trust at the center of this case is a special needs trust. This kind of trust is created for a disabled or elderly person that’s intended to supplement, but not supplant, government assistance programs (such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and SSI-related Medicaid) by creating a fund to pay for care and services not otherwise provided by public programs.

While these trusts are designed to comply with the strict federal regulations governing eligibility for government disability benefits, they’re also subject to all of the state laws any other trust is subject to in Florida. That intersection of state and federal law is at the heart of this case.

Case Study:

Special needs trusts are subject to the Social Security Administration’s “sole benefit” rule under POMS SI 01120.201(F). The sole benefit rule has caused concern in cases involving claims for unpaid child support because of fears that a special needs trust beneficiary could lose his government benefits if his trust funds are used to pay his child support obligations (i.e., benefit a third party); that’s what the defendant argued in the Alexander v. Harris case.

This case involved a beneficiary of a special needs trust that hadn’t paid his child support in years. His trust was established pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1396p with funds from the settlement of a product liability action brought on the beneficiary’s behalf after he was catastrophically injured in a car accident as a minor.

The trust beneficiary owed $91,780 in unpaid child support, and his trust contained approximately $141,997 (plus monthly annuity payments of $3,035 for the rest of the beneficiary’s life). Special needs trusts are usually spendthrift/discretionary trusts for state law purposes, which means they’re shielded from most creditor attacks. But there are exceptions.

Spendthrift clause + discretionary distribution standard = creditor protected trust:

The reason most special needs trusts are impervious to most creditor attacks is a combination of two factors: these trusts usually contain a spendthrift clause that complies with F.S. 736.0502, and/or the trust qualifies as a “discretionary trust” under F.S. 736.0504. Most well-drafted trusts have both provisions — but they don’t have to. A creditor-protected spendthrift trust doesn’t have to be a discretionary trust, and vice versa. See Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 155, comment b.

But there are certain “exceptional” creditors who can pierce these protections. Over three decades ago, in Bacardi v. White, 463 So.2d 218 (Fla. 1985), the Florida Supreme Court held on public policy grounds that under certain circumstances a Florida spendthrift/discretionary trust isn’t shielded from child-support claims or an ex-spouse’s alimony claims. This rule was codified in sections 736.0503 and 736.0504 of the Florida Trust Code, as explained in Berlinger v. Casselberry, a controversial 2d DCA case I wrote about here.

Child support claim + creditor protected trust = win for child support claimant:

Now back to the Alexander case. Here, the 2d DCA held that the special needs trust was subject to garnishment for the same reasons the trust in the Berlinger case had been subject to garnishment: the unpaid debt fell within the state-law exception favoring certain creditors (such as unpaid child support claimants). The trust beneficiary in this case argued his trust funds should nonetheless remain protected because forcing his trust to satisfy his child support obligations would result in him losing his government disability benefits.

Did this argument work? Yes at trial, no on appeal. Why the loss on appeal? Because the argument failed on its own terms. According to the 2d DCA, there’s no “legal basis” for concluding you’re going to lose your disability benefits if your special needs trust pays your child support obligations.

The father argues that using the trust’s funds to satisfy his support obligations would jeopardize his eligibility for public assistance under federal law; however, he cannot identify any legal basis for this conclusion. We can find no federal law or regulation expressly addressing the garnishment of a special needs trust to satisfy a support obligation.

Once that boogeyman was disposed of, the end result was inevitable: child support claimant wins. Anyway, here’s how the 2d DCA made it’s federal disability-law point, which should be of special interest to those of you who spend much time drafting or administering special needs trusts.

To the extent that 42 U.S.C. § 1396p discusses support payments and eligibility, subsection (c)(2)(B)(iii) states that “[a]n individual shall not be ineligible for medical assistance by reason of paragraph (1) to the extent that … the assets … were transferred to … the individual’s child.” Furthermore, federal law gives great deference to state courts in family law proceedings, and the Supreme Court has explained that “[s]tate family and family-property law must do ‘major damage’ to ‘clear and substantial’ federal interests before the Supremacy Clause will demand that state law be overridden.” Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo, 439 U.S. 572, 581, 99 S.Ct. 802, 59 L.Ed.2d 1 (1979) (quoting United States v. Yazell, 382 U.S. 341, 352, 86 S.Ct. 500, 15 L.Ed.2d 404 (1966)). In Rose v. Rose, 481 U.S. 619, 630, 107 S.Ct. 2029, 95 L.Ed.2d 599 (1987), the Supreme Court recognized that payment of child support is in the parent’s best interest, explaining that federal “benefits are not provided to support [the beneficiary] alone.” There is no indication in the federal statutes that Congress has expressed any intention to preempt state statutes, like section 736.0503, that permit garnishment of spendthrift trusts to satisfy the child support obligations of the beneficiary. Id. at 628, 107 S.Ct. 2029 (“Given the traditional authority of state courts over the issue of child support, their unparalleled familiarity with local economic factors affecting divorced parents and children, and their experience in applying state statutes … that do contain detailed support guidelines and established procedures for allocating resources following divorce, we conclude that Congress would surely have been more explicit had it intended the Administrator’s apportionment power to displace a state court’s power to enforce an order of child support.”).

Can you shop around for stronger creditor protection laws? YES

If you’re a planner with a client looking for better asset-protection than Florida law provides, you may want to consider moving your trust to one of the states vying for this kind of business, such as Nevada or South Dakota. That kind of planning was discussed at length in Bacardi on the Rocks, a Florida Bar Journal article reacting to the Berlinger case. And just recently, in a case written about in California Child Support Order Not Enforced Against South Dakota Trust In Cleopatra, the South Dakota Supreme Court refused to enforce a California child support judgment against a South Dakota Trust.

Putting planning issues aside, what does this case tell us about litigating these kinds of claims?

If you’re prosecuting a claim for unpaid child support, your focus should be on Florida state law and the special treatment afforded to these kinds of claims vis-à-vis otherwise creditor protected trusts. As for the state-law issues, this case and the Berlinger case tell you everything you need to know.

If you’re defending one of these cases, you need to play defense on two fronts: state trust law and federal disability law. As for the federal disability law issues, you have the 2d DCA’s analysis in this case in support of a no-forfeiture result. For another analytical approach that reaches the same conclusion you’ll want to read Thoughts on Supporting Healthy Dependents Using Funds From a Disabled Parent’s or Spouse’s Special Needs Trust, by Florida special needs trust guru David Lillesand. In David’s opinion the Social Security Administration is unlikely to contest this kind of trust distribution both as a matter of law and public policy. Here’s an excerpt:

There is no federal regulation or even an SSI POMS provision that addresses the use of d4A Special Needs Trust funds to pay items of support of the disabled person’s spouse or children. The published “rules” neither allow, nor disallow, such payments. Public policy and state non-support criminal statutes, however, would indicate that withholding support for spouses or children would violate the law. The Social Security Administration has indicated that payment of taxes, administration costs of the trust, and attorney’s fees do not violate the sole benefit rule. Because d4A Special Needs Trusts are self-settled trusts not safe from the claims of legitimate creditors, it would seem not only right, but proper, that trust funds be used to support the disabled person’s legal dependents.

Schanck v. Gayhart, — So.3d —- 2018 WL 1999841 (Fla. 1st DCA April 30, 2018)

In contested probate proceedings, if someone’s asserting a jurisdictional defense it’s probably coming up in one of two contexts. Either your judge lacked personal jurisdiction over one of the litigants (see here, here, here for past examples), or your judge lacked in rem jurisdiction over certain property (see here for past examples). And because nothing’s ever easy in probate, sometimes both concepts play themselves out in a single case. That’s what happened here.

Case Study:

This case involved a breach-of-contract action by the estate against the decedent’s ex-husband, who wasn’t paying up on his side of a marital settlement agreement. The estate ultimately obtained a judgment against ex-husband, then set about trying to collect.

As part of its collection efforts the estate filed a motion asking the probate judge to order ex-husband to turn over the stock and membership certificates of two Florida entities owned solely by ex-husband. Ex-husband claimed his new wife had taken the certificates to her place in Canada, which meant the Florida probate court lacked in rem jurisdiction over the certificates. According to ex-husband, if the estate wanted to get its hands on the certificates it had to go to Canada to get them.

Relying on the broad language of F.S. 678.1121, which authorizes a court to aid creditors trying to collect against certificated security interests, the estate countered by arguing that if the Florida probate judge didn’t have in rem jurisdiction over the certificates in Canada, it certainly had personal jurisdiction over ex-husband, and could use that authority to order him (as the sole owner) to simply cancel the certificates and re-issue new ones to the estate in Florida.

Did this end-run around the in rem jurisdiction barrier work? Yup. But it wasn’t easy. The debtor had three primary defenses. And struck out on all three. Here’s why.

Can a Florida probate judge order you to turn over property located in Canada? YES

The first line of defense was purely jurisdictional. According to debtor, a Florida court can’t use its authority over a Florida litigant to force that litigant to return assets located in Canada. This argument isn’t crazy, and it has worked in at least one other case cited by the defendant. So did it work this time? Nope. Strike one. Here’s why:

This Court has recognized that it is permissible for a trial court to direct a defendant over whom it has personal jurisdiction to act on property located outside its jurisdiction, if the title to the property is not directly affected while the property remains in the foreign jurisdiction. See, e.g., Ciungu v. Bulea, 162 So.3d 290, 294 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015). In Ciungu, this Court held that a probate court had authority to direct a party to effect distribution of property located in Romania by virtue of its personal jurisdiction over the party:

‘It has long been established … that a court which has obtained in personam jurisdiction over a defendant may order that defendant to act on property that is outside of the court’s jurisdiction, provided that the court does not directly affect the title to the property while it remains in the foreign jurisdiction.’

Id. (quoting Gen. Elec. Capital Corp. v. Advance Petroleum, Inc., 660 So.2d 1139, 1142 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995) ) (emphasis in original).

… Accordingly, while the only issue before us is whether the court properly ordered the alternative relief of reissuance, we observe that the court had jurisdiction to either order Appellant to return or reissue the certificates, as neither remedy would directly affect title to the certificates while they remained in Canada. See id.

Does section 678.1121 authorize a court to compel you to re-issue stock certificates? YES

OK, so a judge can order you to turn over out-of-state property generally, but the specific statute at play in this probate/debt-collection case was F.S. 678.1121, and the specific order at play in this case compelled the defendant to re-issue the certificates, not turn them over. Defendant argued section 678.1121 requires actual seizure of the certificates, it doesn’t authorize a court to order cancellation and re-issuance. Wrong answer. Strike two. So saith the 1st DCA:

[The] … Fifth District … [has] conclud[ed] that where one debtor refused to respond to discovery and the other indicated she did not know where the stock was, the trial court could order the corporation to reissue the stock certificate. House v. Williams, 573 So.2d 1012, 1012 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991) …

As in House, the securities here could not “readily be reached by ordinary legal process,” — that is, by seizure of the certificates. We hold that section 678.1121(5) authorizes a court to aid the creditor “in reaching the security or in satisfying the claim by means allowed by law or in equity,” including by ordering their reissuance, regardless of whether securities cannot be seized because their location is unknown or because the debtor has attempted to move them outside the court’s reach.

If the sole shareholder’s a party to your case, do you also need to implead the corporation/LLC? NO

If all else fails, call a time out because an indispensable party hasn’t been joined to the case. Here, defendant argued that because stock and membership certificates are issued by a corporation or LLC, not by shareholders or members (see sections 607.0603(1) and 605.0502(4)), the court was required to direct its order to the entities rather than to him, which means these entities needed to be made parties to the case. And since they’re not parties to the case, he gets a walk.

Did this last ditch defense work? Nope. Why not? Because if, as in this case, the defendant’s the sole owner, he’s in control. Which means he’s the one guy who can force the corporation/LLC to re-issue certificates whenever he wants. Strike three — plaintiff wins — so saith the 1st DCA:

The issuer of a certificated security must reissue a certificate upon request from the owner of the certificate. See § 678.4051, Fla. Stat. (providing procedure for reissuance of a lost, destroyed, or wrongfully taken security certificate). [Defendant] undisputedly owns and controls 100% of both Stellar and DataSignals. Notably, when [the estate] sought to add Stellar as a party during the dissolution proceedings, [defendant] represented that he would—and thus could—provide discovery on Stellar’s behalf “as if Stellar were a party” to the action. As such, we reject [defendant’s] contention he lacks the ability to comply with the court’s order, both on statutory and equitable grounds.

Lee v. Lee, 263 So.3d 826 (Fla. 3d DCA January 23, 2019)

A “disclaimer” is essentially a refusal of a gift or bequest, and you typically see them in the context of postmortem estate planning. For example, if a parent dies and leaves assets via a will to a child and the will names the grandchildren as the successor beneficiaries, a disclaimer of the bequest by the child would result in the assets passing to the next person entitled to the property, in this case the grandchildren.

Conceptually, disclaimers rest on two basic principles of property law: “a transfer is not complete until its acceptance by the recipient, and … no person can be forced to accept property against his will.” Jewett v. Commissioner, 455 U.S. 305, 323 (1982) (Blackmun, J., dissenting).

Florida Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interests Act:

In Florida, the law governing disclaimers is codified in the Florida Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interests Act, which is our heavily revised version of the Uniform Disclaimer of Property Interests Act.

In order for a Florida disclaimer to be valid, F.S. 739.104 tells us it must:

  1. be in writing,
  2. declare that the writing is a disclaimer,
  3. describe the interest or power disclaimed,
  4. be signed by the person making the disclaimer,
  5. be witnessed and acknowledged in the manner provided for by deeds of real estate, and
  6. be delivered in the manner provided in F.S. 739.301.

And if you want to record a disclaimer, thus providing constructive notice to anyone conducting a title search that might involve real property that has been disclaimed, F.S. 739.601 tells us the disclaimer must also contain a legal description of the real estate to which the disclaimer relates. But does that mean all disclaimers of real estate have to include legal descriptions? That’s the question the 3d DCA dealt with in this case.

Must all probate disclaimers of real estate contain legal descriptions? NO

In Lee v. Lee the decedent died intestate survived by three children. His estate was composed of two principal assets: (i) real property located in Miami, and (ii) settlement proceeds from a wrongful death claim. For reasons not disclosed in the opinion, one of the children disclaimed her interest in the estate. The disclaimer was witnessed by two persons and notarized, but it didn’t contain a legal description of the real estate.

The disclaiming child apparently had a change of heart, because she subsequently tried to undo her own disclaimer by arguing it wasn’t valid because it didn’t contain a legal description of the real estate being disclaimed. The trial court agreed. Not so fast, said the 3d DCA. Just because the statue gives you the option of recording a disclaimer if it contains a legal description, doesn’t mean it’s required. So saith the 3d DCA:

Section 739.601 provides additional requirements if the disclaimer is to be recorded, thus providing constructive notice to anyone conducting a title search that might involve real property that has been disclaimed. See § 739.601(1) – (2), Fla. Stat. (2014). This statute provides that a disclaimer “relating to real estate does not provide constructive notice to all persons unless the disclaimer contains a legal description of the real estate to which the disclaimer relates and unless the disclaimer is filed for recording in the office of the clerk of the court in the county … where the real estate is located.” § 739.601(1), Fla. Stat. (2014). The statute further provides as follows: “An effective disclaimer meeting the requirements of subsection (1) constitutes constructive notice to all persons from the time of filing. Failure to record the disclaimer does not affect its validity as between the disclaimant and persons to whom the property interest or power passes by reason of the disclaimer.” § 739.601(2), Fla. Stat. (2014) (emphasis added).

Hence, if the disclaimer is to be recorded to provide constructive notice, then the disclaimer must contain a legal description of the real property. It is clear, though, from subsection (2) of this statute, that a non-recorded disclaimer is valid as between the disclaimant and the person to whom the property passes by reason of the disclaimer, regardless of whether the disclaimer includes a description of the real property. If the legislature had intended for all disclaimers of real property, whether recorded or not, to contain a legal description, there would have been no need in section 739.601(1) to include a requirement of a legal description for disclaimers that would be recorded.

The instant disclaimer meets each statutory requirement found in section 739.104(3). While the absence of a legal description of the subject property renders the disclaimer incapable of recordation under section 739.601, the lack of a legal description does not otherwise affect its validity.

Bitetzakis v. Bitetzakis, — So.3d —-, 2019 WL 405568 (Fla. 2d DCA February 01, 2019)

Will execution formalities are second nature to most of us, but it never hurts to go back to basics.

Under F.S. 732.502, a Florida will isn’t valid unless it’s in writing and signed at the end in the presence of at least two attesting witnesses, who sign the will in the presence of the testator and in the presence of each other. Like most US states (and Commonwealth jurisdictions), Florida’s rules for executing wills trace their roots back almost two centuries to the UK Wills Act of 1837.

Florida’s “Strict Compliance” Standard:

The execution rules are simple, but you need to get them exactly right. Why? Because Florida requires “strict compliance”. In other words, unless every last statutory formality is complied with exactly, the will’s invalid (see here, here for past examples).

And while a growing chorus of critics may argue this level of formalism’s outlived its usefulness (think “harmless error” rule), strict compliance is the historical norm. Why has this approach persisted for so long (and in so many jurisdictions)? Because these formalities — applied generally — do a good job of ensuring that most wills accurately and reliably reflect a testator’s intent (even if on occasion these same rules invalidate clearly genuine yet formally defective wills), as explained in Decoupling the Law of Will-Execution:

[F]ormalities are explained as fulfilling several functions that ensure that a will accurately and reliably reflects the testator’s intent. … First, will formalities serve an evidentiary function by providing reliable evidence that the testator intended a particular document to constitute a legally effective will. Second, they serve a protective function by reducing the possibility of fraudulent wills. [Third,] … will formalities serve  a cautionary function by reminding the testator of the legal significance of executing a will. … [And fourth,] will formalities serve [a] channeling function by funneling all wills into a substantially similar form. Because all wills are written, signed, and witnessed, probate courts can more efficiently determine whether the testator intended to execute a valid will.

Although the traditional law gives the court assurance that it can safely distribute the decedent’s estate according to the terms of a formally compliant will, critics contend that requiring courts to invalidate clearly genuine yet formally defective wills conflicts with formality’s role in the realization of testamentary   intent. They argue that the rule of strict compliance  is overly concerned with  preventing the validation of fraudulent or unintended wills and should be more concerned with validating genuine wills.

It’s against this backdrop that the 2d DCA considered what it means to actually “sign” a will under a strict-compliance reading of F.S. 732.502.

Was the decedent’s first name enough to validly execute his will? NO

In Bitetzakis v. Bitetzakis the decedent clearly intended to execute a valid will, but thought he had to do so before a notary (not true). Midway through signing his name, his wife stopped him and told him he’d need to sign again before a notary. She also testified that her husband normally wrote his entire name when signing documents. The next day they went to see a notary but husband goofed again, mistakenly signing a self-proving affidavit instead of re-signing his will.

So does half a signature count? Trial court said yes, 2d DCA said NO. Why not? Think strict compliance (as in even the tiniest mistake = invalid will). So saith the 2d DCA:

Generally, “[t]he primary consideration in construing a will is the intent of the testator.” Allen v. Dalk, 826 So.2d 245, 247 (Fla. 2002) (citing Elliott v. Krause, 531 So.2d 74, 75 (Fla. 1987)). However, “when testamentary intent is contained in a will, it can only be effectuated if the will has been validly executed” in strict compliance with section 732.502, Florida Statutes. Id. (emphasis added). Section 732.502(1)(a) dictates that in order to properly execute a will, the testator “must sign the will at the end” or else the testator’s name “must be subscribed at the end of the will by some other person in the testator’s presence and by the testator’s direction.”

In this case, the probate court erred because the evidence does not establish that the decedent signed at the end of the will or directed another to subscribe his name in his stead. See Dalk, 826 So.2d at 247 (“[W]here a testator fails to sign his or her will, that document will not be admitted to probate.”). Under these very unique circumstances, it is clear that the decedent recorded something less than his full customary signature and therefore did not sign the will within the meaning of section 732.502. See Signature, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining a signature as a “person’s name or mark written by that person … esp., one’s handwritten name as one ordinarily writes it” and “the act of signing something; the handwriting of one’s name in one’s usual fashion”).

To be sure, Florida law permits a testator to sign a will by making a mark not commonly regarded as a formal signature. See In re Williams’ Estate, 182 So.2d 10, 12 (Fla. 1965) (“[A] mark made by the testator at the proper place on his will with the intent that it constitute his signature and evidence his assent to the will is sufficient to satisfy the statutory requirement that he ‘sign’ his will.”). However, in this case we cannot construe the decedent’s alphabetic first name as constituting his mark because there is no evidence that the decedent had the concomitant intent that it serve in place of his signature. In other words, there is no evidence that the decedent signed his first name “with the intention that [a portion of his signature] evidence his assent to the document.” Id. at 13. To the contrary, that the decedent intentionally ceased signing the will and later signed the self-proof affidavit in an apparent attempt to ratify it dispels any notion that he believed or intended that his first name serve as his signature and assent to the will.

There have been numerous books and essays written about Mark Twain’s final two unhappy years in Redding, Connecticut, as well as several accounts capturing the lives, also generally tragic, of his surviving daughter and granddaughter.

A fascinating new article co-authored by Connecticut judge Henry S. Cohn and attorney Adam J. Tarr entitled A Challenging Inheritance: The Fate of Mark Twain’s Will, retells some of that story, but from a legal perspective probate attorneys should find particularly interesting. The article makes use of source documents from the estates of Mark Twain and his descendants, including original wills, probate papers, trust instruments, and court and business filings.

Over a century after his death, Mark Twain still matters. On that note, the article concludes by explaining how the literary “Mark Twain” has succeeded in the twenty-first century, well beyond his death in 1910. Good stuff, highly recommended. Here’s an excerpt:

The last years of Mark Twain’s life were marked with tragedy and emotional hurt. He lost his favorite daughter in 1896, his wife in 1904, and his youngest daughter Jean on Christmas Eve 1909, just four months before his death. Mark Twain’s will, which was written in August 1909 just before his health worsened, captures this emotional state of affairs.

Even though the provisions of Twain’s will and Clara’s subsequent bequests were illustrative of familial grief, Mark Twain’s investments and accumulated assets were a positive factor and only grew over time. While even in death some of his investments were deemed worthless, the trustees under Twain’s will and the Mark Twain Foundation achieved many financial triumphs. Further, thanks to the Papers Project, the Mark Twain literary “brand” has been glowingly successful. Writing in the April 17, 1960 Hartford Courant, Bissell Brooke declared: “Mark Twain again has caught the public’s fancy. Posthumously, he has never been more ‘alive.'”

Johnson v. State, — So.3d —-, 2019 WL 1053155 (4th DCA March 06, 2019)

The bread and butter work of most probate litigators includes breach of fiduciary duty claims by guardians, trustees, and agents acting under powers of attorney (POAs). These are all civil cases. What many probate litigators may not be aware of is that for good and valid reasons, much of this conduct can also get a defendant arrested, criminally prosecuted, and sent to prison for a very long time under F.S. 825.103, which criminalizes most of this conduct as a form of “exploitation of an elderly person or disabled adult.”

And because these cases often turn on issues of “intent” (for example, if a caregiver uses a POA to pay herself from mom’s bank account, did caregiver intend to financially exploit mom or compensate herself for legitimate services?), and because a person’s intent is usually proven indirectly by circumstantial evidence, the importance of what “test” is used to decide the intent question can’t be overstated, especially when the consequences may include years behind bars. The Johnson v. State case is all about what it takes to prove criminal “intent” in exploitation of the elderly cases.

Case Study:

The Johnson v. State case involves an 88 year old woman who was Baker Acted and hospitalized after exhibiting signs of dementia and found living in deplorable conditions. A neighbor visited her in the hospital, and ultimately ended up as her agent under a power of attorney (“POA”). Eventually, a guardian was appointed on behalf of the elderly woman and her neighbor (and neighbor’s minor daughter) were removed as signatories on her accounts. The guardian placed the elderly woman in a nursing home where she died a short time later.

According to the defendant neighbor, she used the POA to withdraw $13,549 from her elderly neighbor’s bank accounts to pay for her care, pay property taxes, pay for the cleanup of her elderly neighbor’s home, and pay an attorney to represent her elderly neighbor in guardianship proceedings. According to the neighbor, of this amount she deposited $2,590 in her own bank account to compensate herself for the time she spent working on the elderly woman’s home and to reimburse herself for expenses she incurred on her behalf. Also, according to the neighbor, she added her minor daughter as a pay-on-death beneficiary of the elderly woman’s bank accounts “based on advice from the bank’s manager …. to protect the funds in the event a probate case was filed.”

Based on these facts, one could plausibly conclude all we have is a fee dispute (i.e., was $2,590 a reasonable reimbursement for time spent and expenses incurred?) and an example of a well intentioned neighbor making a dumb mistake involving pay-on-death bank account designations that resulted in no harm (if the bank funds were frozen, the pay-on-death designations were never effectuated). On the other hand, one could just as plausibly conclude what we have here is the use of a POA to defraud an elderly woman. The deciding factor is: what was going on inside the head of the defendant neighbor? … in other words, what was her intent?

As explained by the 4th DCA, because this is a circumstantial-evidence case, the prosecutor’s burden is especially high.

In circumstantial cases, “a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.” Id. (quoting State v. Law, 559 So.2d 187, 188 (Fla. 1989) ). “[I]f there is direct evidence of a defendant’s actus reus, but the defendant’s intent is proven solely through circumstantial evidence, the special standard of review applies only to the state’s evidence establishing the element of intent.” Id.

Someone else’s money in your bank account = conviction:

If you can’t be convicted if you’re able to come up with “any reasonable hypothesis of innocence” for why you did something, you’d think just about any plausible explanation should be enough (including: “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot.”) And you’d be wrong. Why? Because once someone else’s money ends up in your bank account, no matter how well intentioned you might be or how reasonable your conduct might seem at the time, if in hindsight your fact finder doesn’t buy your story, you’re going to get convicted. So saith the 4th DCA:

There are two key cases issued by this Court which are instructive to the issue of intent in an exploitation of the elderly case. The first is Everett v. State, 831 So.2d 738 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002). … The second key case is McNarrin v. State, 876 So.2d 1253 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004). … Everett and McNarrin establish that when a defendant charged with exploitation of the elderly alleges that funds taken from the alleged victim were used for the victim’s benefit, the State must submit evidence to the contrary. Such contrary evidence could include unexplained deposits in the defendant’s bank accounts or acquisitions of property. See Everett, 831 So.2d at 742. In the instant case, although there was evidence corroborating Appellant’s claim that much of the money taken from the victim’s accounts was used for the benefit of the victim, there was also evidence establishing that Appellant deposited some of the money taken from the victim’s accounts into her own bank account and named her daughter as the beneficiary of the victim’s accounts. This evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, supports the alternative theory that Appellant intended to benefit herself and not preserve the victim’s estate. See Durousseau v. State, 55 So.3d 543, 557 (Fla. 2010) (“Under the circumstantial evidence standard, when there is an inconsistency between the defendant’s theory of innocence and the evidence, when viewed in a light most favorable to the State, the question is one for the finder of fact to resolve and the motion for judgment of acquittal must be denied.”). Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s denial of Appellant’s motion for judgment of acquittal on the issue of intent.

When it comes to probate proceedings, there’s a strong public policy favoring finality, even it means valid claims sometimes get sacrificed. For example, F.S. 733.903 tells us that once a probate proceeding is closed, it won’t be reopened because sometime after the fact someone finds a perfectly valid will that would have changed everything.

And if you’re the personal representative, F.S. 733.901(2) tells us that once you’re discharged, you too can rest easy in the knowledge that you can’t be sued for anything you did during the probate proceeding. But alas, this last bit of finality is subject to a few exceptions, which are the focus of 1st DCA’s opinion in the Sims case.

Sims v. Barnard, — So.3d —- 2018 WL 5796936 (Fla. 1st DCA November 06, 2018)

This case involves a probate proceeding that went on for over 10 years, involved multiple personal representatives, and one very active pro se litigant. The final PR was an attorney who filed a final accounting that was objected to. The probate judge overruled the objections, approved the final accounting, and discharged the PR in 2015. Two years later the PR was sued by the same objecting party for “fraud” and “embezzlement”.

The former PR claimed the suit against him was barred by F.S. 733.901(2), and the trial court agreed. On appeal the claimant argued his lawsuit shouldn’t have been dismissed because his claims fall under the “fraud” and “concealment” exceptions. Here’s how the 1st DCA summarized this argument and the controlling Florida law:

Appellant correctly asserts that section 733.901 “does not serve as an absolute bar to the suits filed after the discharge of the personal representative.” Van Dusen v. Southeast First Nat’l Bank of Miami, 478 So.2d 82, 89 (Fla. 3d DCA 1985). The statutory bar codifies “a modified res judicata concept … applicable in probate cases.” Id. at 91. The bar will not be applied to a suit for fraud by concealment, where its application “would permit a fiduciary to benefit from its alleged wrongful acts if it could conceal them for the statutory period.” Karpo v. Deitsch, 196 So.2d 180, 181 (Fla. 3d DCA 1967) (holding that suit was not barred by discharge where suit alleged PR concealed from heirs the true value of estate and concealed from the court the identities of the heirs preventing heirs from asserting objection or claim prior to discharge). Likewise, where the PR conceals its intentional transfer of an estate asset by failing to report the distribution in the petition for distribution or otherwise, the PR “is not entitled to the sanctuary provided by” section 733.901. Van Dusen, 478 So.2d at 91.

The lawsuit at the center of this case seemed to include the magic “fraud by concealment” allegations needed to survive a motion to dismiss. So rather than challenge the pleading on its face, the defendant challenged it on summary judgment, which allowed the trial court (and the appellate court) to look beyond the four corners of the complaint. When that happened, the claims crumbled, both at the trial court level and on appeal.

Appellant filed his lawsuit against Bernard and the law firm on March 13, 2017. While the amended complaint generally alleged fraud and “embezzlement,” the facts asserted by Appellant were that the PR failed to provide him with sufficient accountings to explain all expenditures, leading Appellant to the conclusion that estate funds had been removed without explanation. The missing interim accountings, which Appellant was ultimately provided, simply do not rise to the level of “concealment” by the PR presented in Van Dusen and Karpo.

Wallace v. Watkins, — So.3d —- 2018 WL 3946062 (Fla. 5th DCA August 17, 2018)

But what if an estate gets probated and years later an heir shows up who was excluded from the original proceeding? That’s what happened in this case.

According to the appellate brief, “[a]lthough the decedent died in 1971, no one in the family had the means or know-how to file estate administration papers with the County at that time.” While it’s never stated explicitly, reading between the lines my sense is that the property at issue in this case is an example of “heirs property” passed down informally to surviving family members who lack the resources to judicially perfect their property rights in a probate proceeding.

As explained in an excellent Florida Bar Journal article entitled The Disproportionate Impact of Heirs Property in Florida’s Low-Income Communities of Color, these arrangements can lead to all sorts of negative consequences. By the way, the authors of this article advocate for Florida’s adoption of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, although not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. See The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act: A Solution in Search of a Problem.

Now back to the case. The decedent died in 1971. In terms of formally clearing title to her property, nothing happened until 2001 (29 years later), when her two daughters initiated a summary administration to probate a parcel of real property owned by the decedent at the time of her death. The decedent had adopted three of her grandchildren. These adopted children didn’t get notice of the probate proceeding, nor did they get a share of the property.

Fast forward another 15 years to 2016. The adopted children filed a petition to reopen the Watkins estate under F.S. 735.206(g), which provides as follows:

(g) Any heir or devisee of the decedent who was lawfully entitled to share in the estate but who was not included in the order of summary administration and distribution may enforce all rights in appropriate proceedings against those who procured the order and, if successful, shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees as an element of costs.

This statute seems pretty clear cut. If you’re an heir, and you weren’t included in the probate proceeding, you get a do-over. But reading the statute that way runs headlong into Florida’s strong public policy favoring finality in probate proceedings. So not surprisingly, as explained by Judge Schwartz in a thoughtful concurring opinion he wrote in Klem v. Espejo-Norton (a case I wrote about here) the usual rule in Florida is that an estate won’t be reopened even if a rightful heir was excluded. The exception to this rule being the type of “fraud by concealment” scenarios discussed in the Sims case above.

The probate judge reopened the Watkins probate proceeding in a non-evidentiary hearing where apparently no one made a “fraud by concealment” argument. Instead, the argument was made that the petition to re-open was time barred by F.S. 733.710(1), Florida’s non-claim statute for probate creditor claims. Since this isn’t a creditor-claim case (it’s a case about excluded heirs) that argument went nowhere.

Florida’s nonclaim statute applies to claims brought against the estate by creditors. It does not apply to the beneficial interests of heirs. See In re Estate of Robertson, 520 So.2d 99, 102 (Fla. 4th DCA 1988) (rejecting argument that nonclaim statute barred claim of heirship because such claims were “not the type of ‘claim’ contemplated” by nonclaim statute); see also Frank T. Pilotte, Creditors’ Claims and Family Allowance, in Practice Under Florida Probate Code (9th ed. 2017) (“[H]owever, the definition of claims and the nonclaim statute clearly do not apply to the beneficial interests of beneficiaries.”).

So what happened here? While the 5th DCA did say the heirship claims weren’t time barred as creditor claims, it didn’t grant the adoptees any property rights, all it did was affirm a trial court order reopening an estate. Does that mean the general rule barring the reopening of probate proceedings in the absence of fraud doesn’t apply in summary administration cases? Who knows. Here’s what we do know for sure: a family with not-that-much to begin with found itself enmeshed in the kind of probate/property-rights mess that seems to disproportionately burden folks most likely to be the recipients of “heirs property”. And that’s a shame.