Faerber v. D.G., 2006 WL 287322 (Fla. 2d DCA Feb 08, 2006)

Probate proceedings take place before judges, not juries. As such the parties involved (including judges), may not always feel strict compliance with Florida’s rules of evidence is a necessary precaution (although Florida Probate Rule 5.170 states explicitly that the rules of evidence in civil actions generally apply to probate proceedings). That point of view is usually harmless because many of the evidentiary rules designed to shelter juries from unfair inferences may not be necessary where, as in probate proceedings, the judge is also the fact finder.

But simply skipping the need for ANY evidence is NOT acceptable, a point made by the 2d DCA in this case when it reversed a ruling by Collier County Judge Hugh D. Hayes granting a petition made pursuant to 2005->Ch0733->Section%20702#0733.702″>F.S. § 733.702(3) seeking leave to file a late claim against the estate because the purported creditor had allegedly been provided with insufficient notice of the claims period. According to this newspaper article, the 2d DCA’s ruling will result in the dismissal of a $10 million lawsuit against the estate.

A trial court’s ruling on a petition for more time to file a claim against an estate is usually reversed only if the trial court has “abused its discretion.” This is a tough burden to overcome, but, as the 2d DCA makes clear in the following excerpt from its opinion, a ruling based on NO evidence is an abuse of discretion and subject to reversal:

[A]s the trial court acknowledged in its order, neither party presented any evidence below. Although, at the hearing, counsel for D.G. made certain representations as to how the Decedent and his family knew D.G. and how the Decedent’s family was aware of D.G.’s involvement in the criminal case against the Decedent, counsel for Appellants objected, noting that such representations did not amount to factual evidence. We agree. See Steinhardt v. Intercondominium Group, Inc., 771 So.2d 614 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000) (stating that facts in dispute must be proven absent stipulation and that representations of counsel are insufficient). Because there was no other evidence presented at the hearing, we can only conclude that the trial court erroneously based its ultimate conclusion that D.G. was a reasonably ascertainable creditor on the assertions of D.G.’s counsel. This was an abuse of discretion. See Allstate Floridian Ins. Co. v. Ronco Inventions, LLC, 890 So.2d 300, 304 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004) (“Reaching the legal conclusion that [a]ppellees had shown due diligence when there was no evidence presented upon which to make such a finding is clearly an abuse of discretion.”). Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s order granting D.G.’s petition for extension of time to file a claim against the Estate.

Because D.G. scheduled the hearing on his motion, failed to present any evidence at that hearing to establish that he had received insufficient notice of the claims period, and did not try to remedy the error when it was pointed out by Appellants’ counsel, on remand the trial court is instructed to enter an order denying D.G.’s petition. (Emphasis added.)