Brindle v. Brindle, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 4722746 (Fla. 3d DCA Oct 29, 2008)

Sometimes it pays to step back and review the basics, like the difference between in rem jurisdiction and in personam jurisdiction in probate proceedings, or the finality of settlement agreements no matter what courtroom you happen to be in. Both issues come up with some frequency in contested probate proceedings, which is why I was happy to see them both addressed squarely in the linked-to opinion.

In Rem v. In Personam Jurisdiction:

When the personal representative of this estate realized he didn’t have enough cash to pay his administrative expenses, he figured why not make his brother (a 50% beneficiary of the estate) pick up half the tab. Sounds reasonable, which is probably why the probate court went along with the idea. Wrong answer said the 3d DCA, and here’s why:

We reverse the order on appeal for further proceedings. The administration of an estate in probate is an in rem proceeding. § 731.105, Fla. Stat. (2006); Hoffman v. Murphy ( In re Estate of Williamson), 95 So.2d 244 (Fla.1956). Beneficiaries are not ordinarily “parties” to the proceeding. Payette v. Clark, 559 So.2d 630 (Fla. 2d DCA 1990); see also Sean Kelly & Shane Kelly, Litigation Under the Florida Probate Code § 1.29 (6th ed. 2006) (“Generally, in a probate administration, the personal representative is the only person over whom the court has in personam jurisdiction.”). Thus, absent consent or statutory authority, a probate court may not apportion the expenses of an estate among the beneficiaries of an estate personally. See Dayton v. Conger, 448 So.2d 609, 611-12 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984); Dourado v. Chousa, 604 So.2d 864, 865 (Fla. 5th DCA 1992); cf. § 733.106(3)-(4), Fla. Stat. (2006) (allowing, in proper circumstances, attorneys fees and costs to be awarded from interests in an estate). There is no agreement or statute applicable to this case by which a personal award of estate expenses against Richard and Charles can be sustained.FN1 The record in this case indicates the probate judge ordered Richard and Charles to split the expenses of the estate as a matter of convenience.

FN1. Although the circuit judge in the civil division had the authority to apportion the costs of that proceeding personally individually among the litigants, § 733.106(1), Fla. Stat. (2006); Dayton, 448 So.2d at 612, the parties, with the approval of the personal representative, resolved those costs in their settlement agreement.

Finality of Settlement Agreements:

No one’s perfect, but it you cut a deal that goes south on you, most of us know you can’t ask for a re-play. You suck it up and move on. Well that’s not what happened in this case. In this case the probate court decided a settlement agreement signed by the litigants two years ago didn’t make sense anymore, so the judge tweeked it a bit. Again, may have sounded like a reasonable "solomaic" solution to a dispute between two brothers disputing their mother’s estate, but it was bad law, so says the 3d DCA:

Finally, neither division of the circuit court possessed the authority to set aside the terms of the settlement agreement for any purpose. The agreement had been approved and compliance ordered by the civil division of the circuit court almost two years before, with jurisdiction retained only “[as] necessary to enforce the Settlement Agreement.” All the facts pertaining to the existence and amount of the expenses needed to be paid by the estate were known or knowable to the personal representative when he embarked upon the distribution of estate assets-more than half to himself-pursuant to the settlement agreement. His argument that “it is no longer equitable that the [order] should have prospective application” within the meaning of Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b)(5) is not supported. See Hensel v. Hensel, 276 So.2d 227, 228 (Fla. 2d DCA 1973) (“[T]he equities spoken of in ground No. 5 of [Rule 1.540(b) ] are those which come to fruition [a]fter a final judgment ….”); accord Baker v. Baker, 920 So.2d 689 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006); Gregory v. Connor, 591 So.2d 974, 977 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991).