Copeland v. Buswell, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 2243701 (Fla. 2d DCA Jul 29, 2009)

Under Florida law the personal representative is the central figure in all things having to do with the probate estate. No matter how inconvenient that fact may be, you can’t ignore the PR in the hopes of cutting a better deal for yourself. That’s the basic take-away from this case.

In this case the estate’s largest creditor (Tampa General Hospital claimed $492,224 in unpaid medical bills) tried to cut a better deal for itself by bypassing the PR and dealing directly with a third party that owed the estate money (a tortfeasor). Under the side deal the hospital got a bigger chunk of its claim paid ($300,000) and the tortfeasor cut its liability exposure to the estate by almost $200,000. Sounds clever. Everybody wins right? Wrong!

Why is the estate the big loser in this deal?

  • First, by cutting out the PR the estate basically got nothing. Which means the PR had no funds with which to pay her own lawyers, or pay herself a PR’s fee, or basically pay any other creditor whose claim had priority over the hospital’s under Florida’s probate code.
  • Second, by cutting out the PR the estate was deprived of the full value of its claim. At the wrongful-death trial the judge ruled that the decedent had in fact incurred 100% of the $492,224 in unpaid medical bills being claimed by the hospital. In other words, the estate’s damages claim would have been for the full amount, NOT the lower figure agreed to in the side deal.

The 2d DCA said no way to the deal, and unwound the whole thing by focusing on how it basically did an end run around the priority-of-payments scheme built into Florida’s probate code:

Under section 733.707, Tampa General’s claim for medical expenses would be designated as a class 4 claim to be paid after class 1, 2, or 3 claims. See § 733.707(1)(a)-(d). In this case, by virtue of [the side deal], Tampa General’s class 4 claim for medical expenses improperly took precedence over class 1 claims for costs of administration and class 2 claims for funeral expenses, in contravention of the priorities established in section 733.707.

The majority’s opinion does a good job of explaining the law, but they don’t really comment how this deal was too cute by half. For that you need to read Judge Concurs’ concurrence. Here’s an excerpt:

[A]s the majority points out, once an estate is opened the decedent’s creditors must settle any claims with the personal representative of the estate pursuant to Florida’s probate rules and statutes. No creditor of an estate is entitled to enter into a sweetheart deal with any entity owing money to the estate that would circumvent the statutory priority of creditors set forth in section 733.707(1)(a). This prohibition on “side deals” is especially important in cases when apportionment issues among creditors could arise, such as when there are insufficient estate assets to pay all claims. Principles of equity, order, and decorum should rule the apportionment process, not insider knowledge and arbitrary favoritism.