Ramunno v. Terranova, — So.2d —-, 2007 WL 2480980 (Fla. 4th DCA Sep 05, 2007)

It happens all the time.  One side or the other in a probate proceeding files an un-sworn petition seeking an order that clearly determines someone’s property rights.  For example, who benefits from a life insurance policy.  The petitioning party then argues the issue at a hearing where absolutely NO testimony or documentary material that’s admissible in evidence ever makes an appearance.  And then the court rules.  Usually the economic stakes aren’t high enough to appeal a no-evidence ruling.  But when they are, be careful, because as the linked-to case demonstrates, you just might end up getting reversed:

Lorenzo Ramunno appeals an order entered by the probate court, contending the court miscalculated the amount he owes under a final judgment obtained by the personal representative against him. We affirm the order in all respects, except as to that portion of the order which charges Mr. Ramunno $16,758.61 for life insurance proceeds he received from Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. upon his mother’s death. This amount represents four-fifths of the proceeds, which the trial court concluded should have been shared equally by Lorenzo and his siblings.

We reverse as to this portion of the order because the only evidence presented to the trial court concerning the life insurance proceeds was Mr. Ramunno’s testimony that he properly received the money. The trial court’s contrary findings are supported only by the arguments of the estate’s counsel and the unsworn pleadings and attachments from the estate’s previous action against Metropolitan Life. These do not suffice as competent, substantial support for the trial court’s ruling. See Romeo v. Romeo, 907 So.2d 1279, 1284 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) (unauthenticated documents and arguments of counsel were not evidentiary support for general master’s ruling); Loiaconi v. Gulf Stream Seafood, Inc., 830 So.2d 908, 910 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002) (document and argument of counsel were not sufficient proof to support venue determination); see also Leon Shaffer Golnick Adver., Inc. v. Cedar, 423 So.2d 1015, 1016-17 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982).

We therefore reverse only as to this $16,758.61 charge to Lorenzo Ramunno.

Lesson learned: evidence matters.

Most probate practitioners chose this practice area to specifically avoid anything having to do with civil litigation, including evidentiary rulings.  In 99% of probate proceedings, that’s fine.  But when it’s a contested proceeding, evidence, civil procedure, discovery, it’s all there.  And it all matters. 

If you’re the petitioning party, even when your side of the argument is a slam dunk, take the time to make sure you’ve created a solid evidentiary record.  If the probate court rules in your favor, the odds of surviving an appellate challenge are astronomically higher if the order is supported by evidence reflected in the record.  As the winning side learned in the linked-to case, in the absence of such evidence your victory may be short lived indeed.