Cutler v. Cutler, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 601866 (Fla. 3d DCA Feb 28, 2007)

Homestead is known as Florida’s legal chameleon because it has different meanings depending upon its context.  Here’s how the 3d DCA described the three faces of Florida’s homestead law in the linked-to opinion:

As the Florida Supreme Court noted in Snyder v. Davis, 699 So.2d 999, 1001-02 (Fla.1997), there are three kinds of homestead with one purpose: preserving the family home for its owner and heirs. The first kind, unrelated to this case, provides homestead with an exemption from taxes. See Art. VII, § 6, Fla. Const. The second protects homestead from forced sale by creditors. Art. X, §§ 4(a)-(b), Fla. Const. The third delineates the restrictions a homestead owner faces when attempting to alienate or devise homestead property. Art. X, § 4(c), Fla. Const.

This case is another example of homestead law derailing a Florida testator’s estate plan.  All parties conceded that the homestead property at issue was "freely devisable" under Florida law, and yet the testator’s intent was still frustrated by Florida’s homestead law.

The estate plan at issue was simple: mom, whose only surviving family was her adult son and daughter, specifically devised 2 pieces of real estate, her home to her daughter and an adjacent vacant lot to her son.  In the event the administrative expenses of her estate exceeded her residuary estate, mom wanted the remaining expenses to be shared equally by son and daughter.  Here’s how the 3d DCA described mom’s plan:

Edith’s [estate] plan [was] that if other available assets are insufficient to satisfy her creditors’ claims and the final expenses of her estate upon her death, the residence she devised to Cynthia and the adjacent vacant parcel she devised to her son Edward will abate equally to satisfy those expenses.

Daughter objected to apportioning any probate expenses to her devise of freely-devisable homestead property and the trial court agreed pursuant to the “inuring clause” of Article X, section 4(b) of the Florida Constitution, effectively frustrating mom’s clearly expressed testamentary intent.  The following excerpts from the linked-to opinion provide a good summary of the 3d DCA’s rationale for upholding the trial court’s ruling:

The specific homestead protection at issue in this case is protection against forced transfer for use by an estate after the death of a decedent. Art. X, § 4(b), Fla. Const. To clearly distinguish this particular protection in the Florida Probate Code from other forms of homestead, the Legislature has denominated it as “protected homestead.” See § 731.201(29), Fla. Stat. (2003)(defining “protected homestead as “[that] property described in s. 4(a)(1), Art. X of the State Constitution on which at the death of the owner the exemption inures to the owner’s surviving spouse or heirs under s. 4(b), Art X of the State Constitution”).

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Here, we are confronted with two specific devises of property, which, in the general residuary clause of her will, Edith directed should be contingently available to her personal representative, if necessary, to pay the expenses of her estate. See Park Lake Presbyterian Church v. Estate of Henry, 106 So.2d 215, 217 (Fla.1958)(defining a specific devise as “a gift of a particular thing or of a specified part of a testator’s estate so described as being capable of distinguishment from all others of the same kind,” and defining a residuary legacy as “a general legacy wherein fall all the assets of the estate after all other legacies have been satisfied and all charges, debts, and costs have been paid”). On their face, these two specific devises appear equal in dignity. But upon closer examination, it is clear that they are not. In the case of the specific devise of the vacant land to Edward, there is no question but that Edith had the legal right to subject this devise to the debts of the estate if she so desired. § 733.805(1) Fla. Stat. (2004)(“Funds or property designated by the will shall be used to pay debts [of the estate] … to the extent the funds or property is sufficient.”); In re Estate of Potter, 469 So.2d 957, 959 (Fla. 4th DCA 1985). However, as we have learned, the devise to Cynthia was followed by a constitutional exemption from forced sale of her devise to satisfy the expenses of Edith’s estate. This constitutionally created benefit is personal to Cynthia, and hers to assert. For reasons of her own, she has determined to do so. We do not consider ourselves liberated to deny her this constitutional benefit.

Lesson learned:

The lesson to be drawn from this case is that the creditor protection aspects of even freely-devisable homestead property will trump all other interests — including a testator’s individual property rights in his or her own home.  This point is made by the Judge Schwartz in his dissent:

The ground of my dissent is aptly stated in the appellant’s brief:

When there is no surviving spouse or minor child, as in this case, the decedent’s homestead may be freely transferred, gifted, or devised without limitation. Art. X, Section 4(c), Fla. Const.; City National Bank of Fla. v. Tescher, 578 So.2d 701, 703 (Fla.1991). … If Mrs. Cutler could have left her properties to someone outside of her family, which she could have done, why could she not leave it to her heirs with the provision that the properties be available to satisfy her debts? The answer to this question is simple-she was lawfully entitled to do so.

See also DeMayo v. Chames, 934 So.2d 548, 551 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006) (Shepherd, J., concurring) (persuasively stating view that property owner should have authority to deal with homestead property as she sees fit), review granted, 937 So.2d 122 (Fla. 2006).FN6

FN6. I hope, without confidence, that the majority is not saying that the limitation on the devise would have been okay if it were contained in the same sentence or paragraph as a condition of the devise, but it is not and the testatrix’s clearly expressed wishes must be frustrated because it is in a separate provision of the will. If my hope is unjustified, as I write I can hear workers installing the words-in Gothic letters, of course-“All common sense abandon, ye who enter here” over the doors to our courtroom.

I am sympathetic to Judge Schwartz’s position, as I previously stated here.