In re Estate of Stisser, 932 So.2d 400, 31 Fla. L. Weekly D1008 (Fla. 2d DCA Apr 07, 2006)

Technical issues such as whether a Florida court has in rem jurisdiction over a matter or whether in personam jurisdiction is required can have huge impacts on how a case is litigated.  In this case, the outcome of that question determined whether a Florida personal representative was forced to sue the successor trustee of the decedent’s revocable trust for payment of expenses and taxes in Florida or Minnesota.  The PR won the argument before the probate court, even though the trust was administered in Minnesota by an individual trustee residing in Minnesota containing trust assets that apparently were located in Minnesota.  Based on these facts, I don’t see how the probate court concluded that it had in rem jurisdiction over the trust — none of the assets were located in Florida.  On appeal, the 2d DCA reversed

The 2d DCA got to the right result, but its expressed reasoning is flawed because it fails to zero in on the single key issue before it: was the lawsuit limited solely to questions involving the parties’ rights over property in Florida or was the lawsuit seeking to impose a judgment directly against a person or party?  Instead the 2d DCA framed its opinion in terms of an "indispensable party" analysis.  For the record, here’s how the 2d DCA expressed its reasoning:

[T]he probate court could not enter such a ruling in the absence of the Cotrustees. “‘The law is settled that, in suits against the trustee affecting trust property, the trustees as well as the cestuis que trustent should be made parties defendant.’ ” First Nat’l Bank of Hollywood v. Broward Nat’l Bank of Fort Lauderdale, 265 So.2d 377, 378 (Fla. 4th DCA 1972) (quoting Griley v. Marion Mortgage Co., 132 Fla. 299, 182 So. 297, 300 (1937)).  The general rule is that a “trustee is an indispensable party in all proceedings affecting the estate.” Id. Yet, in the instant case, both the probate court and the parties appeared to agree that the court did not have personal jurisdiction over the Cotrustees. The probate court stated that it did not require personal jurisdiction over the Cotrustees and proceeded without it in the mistaken belief that it had in rem jurisdiction, which it believed was sufficient. Stisser conceded at the hearing that the probate court did not have personal jurisdiction over the Cotrustees.

Given the fact that the law requires the probate court to have personal jurisdiction over the Cotrustees of a trust in order to enter a ruling affecting the corpus of the trust and given the fact that the court lacked such jurisdiction over the Cotrustees, the probate court was without authority to rule on the complaint filed by Stisser. We conclude therefore that the probate court erred in denying the Cotrustees’ motion to quash service of process and in taking jurisdiction over the instant case. Accordingly, we reverse.