Chaffin v. Overstreet, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 678664 (Fla. 5th DCA Mar 14, 2008)

In contested probate proceedings involving larger estates things can quickly get messy from a jurisdictional and civil procedure perspective because people don’t order their lives into nice neat categories labled "probate" and "non-probate" assets.  Heirs inevitably get in front of the probate judge and ask the court to rule on all sorts of issues that simply have nothing to do with administering the decedent’s probate estate, although they may have a huge impact on the economic well being of the decedent’s heirs.  A prime example of this type of hodgepodge approach to litigation is the intermixing of contested trust actions with completely unrelated probate proceedings.

In the linked-to case the personal representative of "Wife’s" estate was also co-trustee of a trust established by her husband ("Husband’s Trust"), a trust established by Wife and a trust referred to as the "Family Trust."  The PR filed a petition within the probate proceeding seeking to remove the co-trustee of the Family Trust.  At a hearing involving the Family Trust litigation all of sudden the probate court started entering rulings having to do with Husband’s Trust.  Here’s how the 5th DCA described this part of the case:

On 12 September 2006, Chaffin, acting as the personal representative of [Wife’s] estate, filed a Petition to Remove Robert Clay Overstreet as Co-Trustee of the [Family Trust]. Chaffin alleged that Clay was “presently ‘unable’ to serve as Co-trustee of the [Family Trust].”  .  .  .

.  .  .

During the hearing, the trial judge also inquired about the sale of the Ham Brown Road property, which was fifty acres given in trust to Cole in [Husband’s Trust]. Because the property was not part of the [Family Trust], Chaffin argued that the probate court lacked jurisdiction to rule on this issue. Nevertheless, the probate judge found that Chaffin did not have authority under the language of [Husband’s Trust agreement] to sell the property. Shortly thereafter, the probate judge announced that he was requiring yearly accountings on everything that goes through the trust or probate estate.

The 5th DCA agreed with the trustee’s jurisdictional objection, reversing the probate court as follows:

We .  .  .  find that Chaffin’s due process rights were violated when the probate court considered issues other than the Petition to Remove Clay. The only matter noticed for hearing was whether Clay should be removed as the co-trustee of the [Family Trust]. Thus, the probate court lacked jurisdiction over the [property owned by Husband’s Trust] because the issue was not sufficiently raised by the pleading and noticed for hearing. See Alvarez v. Singh, 888 So.2d 159 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004).

In addition, we find that Chaffin was before the court solely in his capacity as co-trustee of the [Family Trust] and the probate court lacked jurisdiction over any other trusts. Although Chaffin sought the appointment of the guardian ad litem and the attorney ad litem in his capacity as trustee of [Husband’s Trust] and [Wife’s Trust], this was insufficient to constitute a general appearance by Chaffin in these capacities. See McKelvey v. McKelvey, 323 So.2d 651, 653 (Fla. 3d DCA 1976) (holding that a general appearance will ordinarily be effected by making any motion involving the merits of a plaintiff’s claim and his or her right to maintain the suit and secure the relief sought); Snipes v. Chase Manhattan Mortg. Corp., 885 So.2d 899 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004). Accordingly, we find that, while Clay is entitled to the use of [Family Trust] money to obtain counsel to defend against attacks brought by Chaffin, the probate court lacked jurisdiction to award Clay trust money from any other trusts. See In re Estate of Stisser, 932 So.2d 400, 402 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (holding that trustees are indispensable parties and the probate court must have jurisdiction over the trustees in order to enter a ruling affecting the corpus of the trust); McLendon v. Smith, 589 So.2d 410 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991) (holding that presence in one capacity does not subject a party in another capacity to the jurisdiction of the court).

Lesson learned?

If you’re already in front of a probate court and it looks like a related trust may be affected by the probate litigation, you need to anticipate the jurisdictional issues and make a choice: either file a petition getting your trust in front of the same probate judge or file a separate trust action in the general-jurisdiction division of the circuit court and get your trust in front of a different judge.  There are pros and cons to either choice, but at least you’ve dealt with the jurisdictional issues head on (and hopefully plead the separate trust action in a way that makes sense from a procedural view point).