Bush v. Webb, 2006 WL 2872522 (Fla. 1st DCA October 11, 2006)

An overarching theme of Florida’s probate code (and recurring point of discussion on this blog) is the tension between basic due-process rights on the one hand and Florida’s strong public policy favoring the speedy administration of estates on the other. In order to move things along as quickly as possible (with the least amount of litigation expense possible), Florida law provides extremely short windows of opportunities for litigants to file claims.  Florida’s 2-year non-claim statute (733.710(1)) epitomizes this stated public policy because of its simplicity and utter disregard for due process or equitable considerations. When it comes to creditors, after 2 years it’s game over . . . period, no exceptions.

The issue litigated in this case was whether language in a will explicitly directing the personal representative to pay the decedent’s funeral expenses trumps Florida’s 2-year non-claim statute. The 1st DCA described the will-language in contention as follows:

The decedent died on February 16, 2002. In her will, she bequeathed all her property to appellant and directed that her “just debts, funeral and administration expenses be paid as soon after [her] death as may be practical . . .”

The personal representative in this case was the decedent’s sister. Apparently the decedent’s children paid mom’s funeral expenses then waited over two years to file a claim against mom’s estate seeking reimbursement. The PR said NO, the trial court said YES, and the 1st DCA sided with the PR, changing the answer to NO again. Here’s how the 1st DCA described the reasoning underlying its decision to reverse the probate court’s ruling:

It is undisputed in this case that appellees filed their claims against the decedent’s estate more than two years after her death. Pursuant to section 733.710(1), the claims were barred. Contrary to appellees’ argument, the decedent’s directive that her estate pay her funeral expenses did not excuse their statutory obligation to file their claims against the estate within two years of the decedent’s death. See Marshall Lodge No. 39, A.F. & A.M. v. Woodson, 190 So. 749, 751 (Fla.1939) (“We do not think that the provision of the will directing the executors to pay all of the just debts of the testator had any effect upon the operation of the statute of non-claim.”). Were that not the case, each of the decedent’s creditors could have simply relied on the will and filed claims against the estate long after her death, thereby forever subjecting the estate to uncertainty. Such a situation would conflict with the purpose behind section 733.710(1).

Lesson learned:

If you even suspect an estate may owe you money, when in doubt file a claim . . . and do it sooner rather than later.  An early claim can always be withdrawn, a late claim is gone forever.