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Jurisdictional issues in probate proceedings are a source of recurring confusion for litigants and courts alike. If the court is proceeding based on its in rem jurisdiction, then under F.S. 731.301(2) all you need to do is serve anyone with a stake in the probate estate with “formal notice” under Probate Rule 5.040 and bingo, they’re bound by the resulting court order to the extent of their interest in the estate. If the court is asserting in personam jurisdiction over a particular person (vs. in rem jurisdiction over the assets of the estate), then formal notice is not sufficient, in those cases a “summons”/service of process under Civil Procedure Rule 1.070 on the person you want to subject to court authority is necessary. Applying these basic concepts in a real life probate proceeding isn’t always easy.

Case Study

Hall v. Tungett, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 2065802 (Fla. 2d DCA May 16, 2008)

In this case the 2d DCA basically avoided stepping into the in rem vs. in personam jurisdictional thicket by concluding that the issue was forfeited at the trial court level because the side contesting jurisdiction failed to follow the procedural/evidentiary steps necessary to contest jurisdiction. The 2d DCA then goes on to provide an excellent procedural road map for probate counsel to follow if they ever find themselves in a dispute over jurisdiction.

Step 1: Did PR satisfy initial pleading requirement? YES

The PR, as plaintiff in this proceeding, bore the initial burden of pleading a sufficient basis to obtain jurisdiction over Ms. Hall. See Venetian Salami Co. v. Parthenais, 554 So.2d 499, 502 (Fla.1989). According to the 2d DCA the PR met its pleading burden as follows:

.  .  .The statute defines a “distributee” as “a person who has received estate property from a personal representative or other fiduciary other than as a creditor or purchaser.” § 731.201(10). A distributee who improperly receives assets or funds from an estate may be compelled to return the assets or funds received. § 733.812.

The PR’s motion alleged that the brokerage account was titled in the decedent’s name at the time of his death, was wrongfully distributed to Ms. Hall by Ms. Green as the predecessor personal representative, and was in Ms. Hall’s possession. The motion claimed that the account and other property belonged to the Estate and must be returned to it, or if the account and property were no longer in Ms. Hall’s possession then she had to return to the Estate the equivalent value, as well as any income earned on the assets or any gain received with respect to the assets.

These allegations were sufficient to meet the PR’s pleading requirement and to support service on Ms. Hall by the formal notice method permitted under section 731.301 and rule 5.040. Further, Ms. Hall did not contest the allegations by affidavit or other sworn proof. Thus, the court could properly find that it had jurisdiction over Ms. Hall to the extent of her interest in the Estate and to the extent that she received Estate property, other than as a creditor or purchaser, from Ms. Green.

Step 2: Did Ms. Hall contest the jurisdictional allegations by affidavit or other sworn proof? NO

Once the PR met its burden of pleading, the burden shifted to the person contesting jurisdiction to contest the essential jurisdictional allegations in the manner laid out in the following quoted text. Ms. Hall didn’t comply with this procedure, effectively forfeiting the issue (ouch!!).

In [Hilltopper Holding Corp. v. Estate of Cutchin, 955 So.2d 598, 601 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007)], we explained as follows:

If the plaintiff meets this pleading requirement, the burden shifts to the defendant to file a legally sufficient affidavit or other sworn proof that contests the essential jurisdictional facts of the plaintiff’s complaint. To be legally sufficient, the defendant’s affidavit must contain factual allegations which, if taken as true, show that the defendant’s conduct does not subject him to jurisdiction…. If the defendant does not fully dispute the jurisdictional facts, the motion must be denied….

If the defendant’s affidavit does fully dispute the jurisdictional allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove by affidavit or other sworn proof that a basis for long-arm jurisdiction exists. If the plaintiff fails to come forward with sworn proof to refute the allegations in the defendant’s affidavit and to prove jurisdiction, the defendant’s motion to dismiss must be granted.

955 So.2d at 601-02 (citations omitted).

Step 3:  Is the litigation about whether the brokerage accounts are probate assets? NO

On appeal Ms. Hall argued that she shouldn’t be subject to the probate court’s in rem jurisdiction because she had not conceded that the brokerage account at issue in this case was in fact a probate asset. The 2d DCA basically said that’s a fine argument at the trial court level, but gets you nowhere if you bring it up for the first time on appeal. Again, the 2d DCA skirted the substantive issue by basically ruling that Ms. Hall’s failure to follow the proper procedure at trial resulted in her forfeiting this point.

[T]he PR alleged that Mr. Green owned the brokerage account at the time of his death, that upon his death the account was an Estate asset, and that as the initial personal representative Ms. Green improperly distributed the account proceeds to herself and Ms. Hall. Unlike the litigation in [Estate of Vernon v. Resolution Trust Corp., 608 So.2d 510 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992)], the present litigation is not intended to determine whether the Estate, in the first instance, had any interest in the brokerage account; rather, the litigation is intended to recover an Estate asset that allegedly had been improperly distributed by Ms. Green. The allegations contained in the motion were not refuted by Ms. Hall in her response to the motion or by sworn evidence challenging the PR’s factual allegations. Thus, based on the information before it, the probate court properly determined that service by formal notice was sufficient and that it could exercise jurisdiction over Ms. Hall.

Do you really need evidence in contested probate proceedings? YES!!

Ms. Hall got a partial win out of this appeal when the 2d DCA reversed the trial court’s ruling on the contested brokerage account. The trial court apparently ruled based solely on argument of counsel, which is flattering to the attorneys, but scores a big zero on the evidence meter. Getting back to basics here, counsel’s argument is NOT evidence. I’ve written before about probate court’s deciding issues in the absence of evidence [click here]. Here’s how the 2d DCA tackled the no-evidence issue in this appeal:

Concerning that part of the probate court’s order that directed Ms. Hall to transfer property to the PR, Ms. Hall argued to the probate court that once the court resolved the issue of jurisdiction, an evidentiary hearing would be necessary to resolve disputed issues of fact relating to the property and the relief sought by the PR. After hearing the arguments of counsel as to jurisdiction and service by formal notice, the probate court took these issues under advisement. Then, the court entered its order determining that service had been proper and that it had jurisdiction over Ms. Hall. In the same order, and without receiving any evidence, the court determined that the Estate was entitled to return of the property and directed Ms. Hall to transfer the property to the PR.

As an interested person regarding the disputed property, Ms. Hall was entitled to be heard and to present evidence in support of her position. See Fleming v. Demps, 918 So.2d 982, 984 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) (reiterating that due process requires that a party be given the opportunity to be heard and to present evidence “to determine who is the rightful owner of the funds and whether the funds should be administered as estate assets or otherwise distributed to the proper owner”). Moreover, the PR did not present any evidence establishing the Estate’s entitlement to return of the property. Because the court acted without an evidentiary basis in directing Ms. Hall to transfer the property to the PR, we reverse and remand for an evidentiary hearing.