Probate litigation has a way of spawning jurisdictional disputes that make your toughest law-school exam seem like a walk in the park.  Click here, here and here for recent examples.  These jurisdictional battles rarely become mano-a-mano contests between competing judges, but that’s what seems to be happening in a case reported on in a San Francisco Chronicle article entitled Inheritance fight imperils de Young tribal art.

Since 2005 Palm Beach County, FL probate Judge John Phillips has been presiding over an inheritance battle between heirs of the Annenberg publishing fortune that is currently centered on an art collection valued for insurance purposes at over $90 million.  Known as the Jolika Collection, it’s housed in a specially built wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, which is owned and operated by the City of San Francisco, CA.

As you can imagine, San Francisco’s citizenry wasn’t about to let some small-town Florida probate judge to take control of this very valuable public asset without a fight.  So when San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera got wind of the case, he asked Judge Phillips for permission to intervene in the Florida case.  Judge Phillips said no.  Undeterred, and presumably fully aware that possession is nine-tenths of the law, Mr. Herrera then turned to an apparently much friendlier venue – San Francisco state court Judge Peter Busch – and (surprise!) got a restraining order effectively giving him the win he was denied in Florida. The Florida parties and Judge Phillips can stomp their feet in righteous indignation all they want, but as long as the Jolika Collection‘s in San Francisco, nothing’s going anywhere until San Francisco Judge Busch says so.

Here’s an excerpt from the linked-to article:

Three brothers – John Friede, Robert Friede and Thomas Jaffe – have been feuding since 2005 over the estate of their mother, Evelyn A.J. Hall, a sister of the late publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg. Under a settlement reached on Oct. 18, 2007, John and Marcia Friede agreed to pay his brothers $30 million – $20 million of which was secured by the couple’s art collection, according to figures in the case.

The problem was that a week earlier, John Friede had finalized paperwork donating the entire 4,000 piece collection to the city-owned de Young, according to documents from the city attorney.

Last week, a probate judge in Florida ruled that John and Marcia Friede had breached the settlement agreement by its deal with the de Young and by granting a lien on the art in exchange for a $670,000 advance, court documents show.

Judge John Phillips ordered the couple to turn over "all collateral described in the security agreement, which is in their care, custody or control" to the two other brothers. The balance of the Jolika Collection is at the couple’s home outside New York City, according to court filings. Those pieces had been donated to the museum even if they had not been moved, according to the city.

Herrera’s office tried to intervene in the Florida case this week, but Phillips would not allow it, prompting Herrera to file a case in San Francisco Superior Court. There, Judge Peter Busch issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the artwork from being removed from the museum or the house. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for Oct. 6.

The main question is: Who really owns the artwork?

"That’s a murky area," Deputy City Attorney Donald Margolis said. "We’re taking the position that entirety of the Jolika Collection has been transferred to the museum."

Lesson learned?

In the real world, bare-knuckles politics trumps the legal niceties of civil procedure any day of the week.  The City of San Francisco may not have had legal standing to intervene in the Florida probate case, but it’s now firmly ensconced at the negotiating table.  The parties can spend the next few years litigating this turn of events or simply accept the realities of life and cut the best deal possible with Mr. Herrera.  If the collection’s worth over $90 million, and the amount in dispute in Florida is $30 million, there’s probably a deal to be had that works for all concerned.

Blogging credit:

Credit goes to the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog for bringing the linked-to article to my attention in the blog post entitled Estate of Evelyn A.J. Hall.