Wheeler v. Powers, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 160881 (Fla. 5th DCA Jan 18, 2008)

Standing:

In Florida whether or not you have standing to litigate a probate dispute depends on whether or not you’re an "interested person," as defined by F.S. § 731.201(21):

(21) “Interested person” means any person who may reasonably be expected to be affected by the outcome of the particular proceeding involved. In any proceeding affecting the estate or the rights of a beneficiary in the estate, the personal representative of the estate shall be deemed to be an interested person. In any proceeding affecting the expenses of the administration and obligations of a decedent’s estate, or any claims described in s. 733.702(1), the trustee of a trust described in s. 733.707(3) is an interested person in the administration of the grantor’s estate…. The meaning, as it relates to particular persons, may vary from time to time and must be determined according to the particular purpose of, and matter involved in, any proceedings.

In this case the primary issue on appeal was whether the Florida Probate Code’s interested-person definition includes a nominated personal representative under a prior will.  The probate court said no, the 5th DCA said YES . . . but added the following proviso:

However, we do not suggest that every personal representative from every prior will should be granted standing. As stated in [Hayes v. Guardianship of Thompson, 952 So.2d 498, 507 (Fla.2006)], the definition of “interested person” is fluid and “must be determined according to the particular purpose of, and matter involved in, any proceeding.” 952 So.2d at 507. In this case, Dorothy was of sound mind when she prepared her 2001 Will and placed Mr. Wheeler in fiduciary positions. Nearly four years later and six weeks before she was involuntarily hospitalized with late stage Alzheimer’s disease, she removed Mr. Wheeler from the Will and added her previously disinherited stepson.

Mr. Wheeler allegedly lost standing under Dorothy’s 2001 Will due to undue influence. He was the alternate personal representative and co-trustee for approximately four years until Dorothy changed her Will under suspicious circumstances. Under these circumstances, we find that Mr. Wheeler is an “interested person” within the meaning of section 731.201(21). Therefore, we reverse the trial court’s denial of relief on this claim.

Because we conclude that Mr. Wheeler has standing as an alternate personal representative under a prior Will, we need not reach the issue of whether Mr. Wheeler has standing as a co-successor trustee under a prior trust.

The take-away from this part of the case is that the named PR under a prior will "may" have standing if a win at trial would result in the appointment of the PR under the prior will.  It’s also important to note that unlike most other forms of litigation, standing for purposes of contested probate proceedings is not limited to parties having an economic stake in the outcome.  A testator’s right to designate whom will be his PR is of such importance that this status alone can be the basis for standing to litigate.  I’ve written before about the deference given under Florida law to a testator’s selection of his PR [click here].

Caveat:

In this case the named PR  had also taken the  prudent step of filing a caveat.  Unfortunately, the clerk of the court failed to comply with its obligation to notify him when a petition to file the later-signed will was filed.  When the named PR sought to have the probate proceeding revoked on this basis the probate court ruled against him, and was again reversed on appeal for the following reason:

Another issue raised on appeal is whether probate of the 2005 Will should be revoked because timely notice was not provided to a caveator. Florida Probate Rule 5.260(f) states that “[a]fter the filing of a caveat by an interested person other than a creditor, the court shall not admit a will of the decedent to probate or appoint a personal representative without service of formal notice on the caveator or the caveator’s designated agent.” Additionally, the Florida Supreme Court has long recognized that the filing of a caveat precludes the admission of a will to probate until the caveator is provided statutory notice. See Street v. Crosthwait, 186 So.2d 516 (Fla.1939); Barry v. Walker, 137 So.2d 711 (Fla.1931); Grooms v. Royce, 638 So.2d 1019 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994); In re Estate of Hartman, 836 So.2d 1038 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002); Nardi v. Nardi, 390 So.2d 438 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980). Since we find that Mr. Wheeler was an “interested person” within the meaning of section 731.201(21), we hold that the trial court erred in not revoking the probate of the 2005 Will because timely notice was not provided to a caveator as required by Florida Probate Rule 5.260(f) and Florida case law. Thus, the orders appointing the personal representative and admitting the 2005 Will to probate must be set aside to provide notice to the caveator.