Pastor v. Pastor, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 4th DCA April 19, 2006)

One of the overarching themes of Florida’s probate code is the tension between constitutionally protected due-process rights and Florida’s strong public policy favoring the speedy administration of estates. In order to move things along as quickly as possible, Florida law provides extremely short windows of opportunities for litigants to file objections. For example, under 2005->Ch0733->Section%20212#0733.212″>F.S. § 733.212 potential litigants served with a notice of administration have only 3 months to object “to the validity of the will, the qualifications of the personal representative, venue, or jurisdiction of the court” or those objections “are forever barred.” In this case the objecting party tried to get around the 3-month limitations period contained in F.S. § 733.212 by arguing that an objection to domicile was like objecting to the court’s subject matter jurisdiction, and thus not subject to waiver. Not surprisingly, this argument was shot down both at the trial court level and by the Fourth DCA, which explained its ruling as follows:

For the purpose of overcoming the bar of section 733.212(3), Appellant contends that an issue of domicile is an attack on subject matter jurisdiction and is not waived by failing to timely file. The trial court correctly recognized that subject matter jurisdiction is not determined by the decedent’s domicile; rather, it is based on the power of the court over the class of cases to which the controversy belongs. See Ruth v. Department of Legal Affairs, 684 So.2d 181, 185 (Fla.1996); Chase Bank of Texas Nat’l Ass’n. v. Department of Ins., 860 So.2d 472, 475 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003). . . . . . We are not unmindful of Appellant’s argument that finding such an objection to subject matter jurisdiction can be waived under the statute will effectively allow Florida courts to probate a non-domiciliary’s estate through domiciliary administration. Nevertheless, we conclude that Appellant may not challenge the court’s jurisdiction where he received the notice of administration, the trial court determined domicile through the verified petition, and the three-month period to object to jurisdiction passed before filing his claims. There is a “strong public policy” in this state “in favor of settling and closing estates in a speedy manner.” May v. Illinois Nat’l Ins. Co., 771 So.2d 1143, 1151 (Fla.2000). If the court were to hold that domicile is a component of subject matter jurisdiction, any estate could be re-opened based on such a belated objection. This would render section 733.212(3) meaningless and would contravene Florida’s public policy as expressed in May. See also In re Estate of Williamson, 95 So.2d 244 (Fla.1957). (Emphasis added.)

Lesson Learned:

In the probate-litigation context, there is a huge advantage to understanding how quickly claims may be cut off. If you represent the party expecting to defend against a possible challenge, the probate code provides ample opportunities for building almost air-tight defenses to litigation. If you represent a party that is thinking about filing an objection, quick decisive action is of paramount importance.