University of Miami v. Wilson, __ So.2d __, 2006 WL 1687685 (Fla. 3d DCA June 21, 2006)

The doctrine referred to in the headline for this blog post comes up most often in wrongful-death cases. For whatever reason the plaintiff is unable to be appointed personal representative of the estate prior to the statute-of-limitations period expiring. So he or she files the wrongful-death lawsuit before being appointed personal representative. Defendant responds by seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed arguing (a) that the named plaintiff lacked authority and (b) that since the statute-of-limitations period has since expired, the lawsuit is barred.

That’s essentially what the University of Miami, as defendant, argued in this case. UM lost at the trial court level and again before the Third DCA, which held that because the named plaintiffs were in fact ultimately appointed personal representatives their powers as personal representative “relate back” to the time they filed their lawsuit. Here’s an excerpt from the Third DCA’s opinion:

Ms. Wilson and Ms. Salmon argue that, because they were ultimately appointed personal representatives, their powers as personal representatives should relate back, thereby validating the actions they took prior to their appointment. We agree as there is both statutory and case law support for such a finding. Chapter 733 of the Florida Statutes is the Probate Code and deals with the administration of estates. Section 733.601, Florida Statutes (2002), specifically provides that

The duties and powers of a personal representative commence upon appointment. The powers of a personal representative relate back in time to give acts by the person appointed, occurring before appointment and beneficial to the estate, the same effect as those occurring after appointment. A personal representative may ratify and accept acts on behalf of the estate done by others when the acts would have been proper for a personal representative.

(Emphasis added in 3d DCA opinion).

Even early Florida jurisprudence recognized that acts of a personal representative prior to his/her appointment may be validated upon appointment. See Griffin v. Workman, 73 So.2d 844 (Fla.1954)(acknowledging the “ancient doctrine” which validates the acts of a personal representative prior to his appointment and noting that “a wide variety of acts and conduct” have been validated by subsequent qualification of an administrator, including an advancement to a distributee, the sale of estate property, the execution of a deed, and the institution of a wrongful death action); see also Talan v. Murphy, 433 So.2d 207, 208 (Fla. 3d DCA 1983)(holding that, although Talan brought a wrongful death action without having been appointed as personal representative, his subsequent appointment related back and his acts were thereby validated insofar as they were acts he could have performed had he been qualified as a personal representative, and finding that it was not necessary for him to allege in his original complaint that he was the personal representative).

(Emphasis added.)

Lesson Learned:

The general concept at issue here is whether a presumptive personal representative can act on behalf of the estate before being appointed. As the Third DCA pointed out in its opinion, this question comes up in various contexts, not just wrongful death claims. Probate lawyers should be aware of the “relation back” doctrine – you never know when it might just get your clients out of a jam.