In re Estate of Wejanowski, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 2d DCA February 15, 2006)

It’s not unusual for a personal representative to seek explicit prior approval from the probate judge when contemplating some sort of litigation involving the estate – even is such authority is not required. This type of pre-approval is sought pursuant to 2005->Ch0733->Section%20602#0733.602″>F.S. § 733.602(2), which removes liability for any act of administration of the state if the act was “authorized” at the time.

This case is an example of what can go wrong when asking a probate judge for prior approval. You may not like the answer you get. Here the personal representative filed a motion with the probate court seeking approval of costs and fees associated with prosecuting an appeal of a wrongful-death judgment pending against the estate.

The trial court denied the personal representative’s motion without prejudice to resubmit the request at the conclusion of the appeal upon a showing of monetary benefit to the estate and ordered him not to expend estate funds for prosecution of the appeal, to include attorney’s fees and costs.

The Second DCA reversed, essentially holding that a monetary benefit (i.e., prevailing party) standard was too high a bar for approval of fees and costs associated with an appeal, stating as follows:

Requiring [the personal representative] to show a monetary benefit to the estate before he is entitled to reimbursement for appellate expenses narrows the definition of “benefit to the estate” to an unworkable level in this appellate context. An appellate attorney has an ethical duty not to prosecute a baseless or frivolous appeal. Payment of appellate fees and costs cannot be contingent upon prevailing on appeal because neither party can guarantee the outcome. The true benefit to an estate provided by an appellate attorney is the presentation of a good-faith appeal and its ultimate resolution. Our system affords litigants the right to resolve disputes with due process, safeguarded by appellate review of the trial court’s decisions. Cf. Brake v. Murphy, 693 So.2d 663 (Fla. 3d DCA 1997) (reversing an order that required the personal representative and her husband to post a bond in order to file further pleadings in a surcharge proceeding because the order violated the access to the courts provision and due process clause of the state constitution).