Fleming v. Demps, 2005 WL 3481367 (Fla. 2d DCA Dec 21, 2005)

In this case there was a dispute regarding whether $317,000 in a certain bank account belonged to the probate estate or the decedent’s niece, Ms. Henrietta Fleming, the designated beneficiary of the account. This is the sort of issue probate judges deal with every day. Which may explain in part why Hillsborough Judge Rex Martin Barbas felt it was OK to enter a final judgment ruling in favor of the estate and against Ms. Fleming without conducting an evidentiary hearing.

Ms. Fleming appealed, and the Second DCA reversed the trial judge on the following due-process grounds:

Concerning the lack of an opportunity to be heard prior to entry of the final judgment, “[d]ue process requires that a party be given the opportunity to be heard and to testify and call witnesses on his behalf, and the denial of this right is fundamental error.” Pettry v. Pettry, 706 So.2d 107, 108 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998) (citations omitted); see also Pope v. Pope, 901 So.2d 352, 353-54 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005) (same); Hinton v. Gold, 813 So.2d 1057, 1060 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) (same). Here, the personal representative’s motion of March 1, 2004, to determine who is the rightful owner of the funds and whether the funds should be administered as estate assets or otherwise distributed to the proper owner was resolved without giving Ms. Fleming any opportunity to be heard and to present evidence on the issues. (Emphasis added.)

Lesson Learned:

The probate-administration process is often criticized as being too slow and costly. In contested proceedings, this criticism can conflict with basic notions of fairness underlying every Floridian’s due process rights. Hopefully the parties (and the trial judge) will realize this without having to incur the extra cost and expense associated with appellate proceedings.