Babcock v. Estate of Babcock, — So.2d —-, 2008 WL 4863088 (Fla. 4th DCA Nov 12, 2008)

Any probate lawyer worth his or her salt will tell you that reading a person’s will is often just the tip of the iceberg. You don’t really know how to administer an estate unless you take the decedent’s will and run it through Florida’s probate code to see what comes out the other end. The results can be surprising.

The linked-to opinion is a good example of how radically altered a will’s legal effect can be once it’s administered under our probate code. All of the following probate-code rules played a part in this case:

  • If you get divorced and forget to revise your will, don’t worry, your ex is automatically cut out of your will under F.S.732.507(2).
  • If you get married and forget to revise your will to provide for your new spouse, don’t worry, he or she is automatically written into your will as a "pretermitted spouse" under F.S. 732.301.
  • If you die and leave your spouse nothing but your household effects and a bunch of bills, don’t worry, he or she gets to keep this stuff as "exempt property" under F.S. 732.402. However, if you specifically bequest all of this stuff to someone else, then your surviving spouse is out of luck.

Here’s an excerpt from the linked-to opinion that manages to weave all of these concepts into three short paragraphs:

Bradford Babcock died leaving a will which provided in Article IV the following bequest:

I devise to my wife, TARA L. BABCOCK, all of my clothing, jewelry, household goods, personal effects, automobiles and all other tangible personal property not otherwise specifically devised herein or pursuant to the written statement or list described in Article Third of this my Last Will and Testament. If my said wife shall not survive me, I devise all of the aforesaid property to my son, BRAXTON D. BABCOCK, if he shall be living at the time of my death.

At the time of his death, he was divorced from Tara and married to Tawn Babcock, from whom he was separated. Because of the divorce, those provisions affecting Tara became void. § 732.507(2), Fla. Stat. Thus, the will would be construed as a bequest to Braxton of the property contained in Article IV. Tawn was not mentioned in the will and constituted a pretermitted spouse. § 732.301, Fla. Stat.

Tawn filed a motion to determine exempt property pursuant to section 732.402(6), Florida Statutes, which provides that the surviving spouse has the right to a share of the “exempt property,” of the estate, which includes certain “[h]ousehold furniture,” “furnishings,” “appliances,” and “automobiles.” § 732.402(1), (2), Fla. Stat. However, “[p]roperty specifically or demonstratively devised by the decedent’s will to any devisee shall not be included in exempt property.” § 732.402(5), Fla. Stat.

So what’s a specific bequest?

As a first step all anyone had to do in this case was read the probate code, but once they ran up against the specific-bequest exception to the exempt-property statute, they got sucked into Florida’s common law. Here’s how the 4th DCA summarized the law on this point and how it should be applied to the specific facts of this case.

“A specific legacy is a gift by will of property which is particularly designated and which is to be satisfied only by the receipt of the particular property described.” In re Estate of Udell, 482 So.2d 458, 460 (Fla. 4th DCA 1986). See also Park Lake Presbyterian Church v. Henry’s Estate, 106 So.2d 215, 217 (Fla. 2d DCA 1958) (“[A] specific legacy is a gift of a particular thing or of a specified part of the testator’s estate so described as to be capable of distinguishment from all others of the same kind.”). On the other hand, “[a] general legacy or devise is one which does not direct the delivery of any particular property; is not limited to any particular asset; and may be satisfied out of the general assets belonging to the estate of testator and not otherwise disposed of in the will.” In re Estate of Udell, 482 So.2d at 460. See also Park Lake, 106 So.2d at 217.

Applying the above definitions to this case, the clothing, jewelry, and automobiles mentioned in the will are clearly specific bequests because they are particularly designated and can be satisfied only by receipt of the particular property. Stated differently, they are specific things or a specific part of the testator’s estate. They are not general bequests because they cannot be satisfied out of the general assets of the testator’s estate. The bequest in the instant case is similar to that in In re Estate of Gilbert, 585 So.2d 970, 972 (Fla. 2d DCA 1991), where the Second District found that a bequest of “all of her jewelry, clothing, and feminine personalty … was a specific bequest of identifiable property.”