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Plaintiffs suing estates often fail to realize that they’re really litigating their claims in two separate courts in front of two separate judges:

  1. The trial court adjudicating their lawsuit (this is where the estate’s liability is established); and
  2. The probate court administering the decedent’s probate estate (this is where you go to collect if you win in the trial court).

What’s scary about this dual-court approach is that it creates a huge trap for the unwary: you can spend years and a fortune in fees litigating claims against an estate in a trial court and never be the wiser to the fact that you’ve blown past one of the ultra-short limitations periods applicable in a probate court under F.S. 733.702 or F.S. 733.710; which means no matter how spectacular your win might be at trial, you’ll never be able to collect on your judgment in the probate court.

Case Study

Mack v. Perri, — So.3d —-, (Fla. 1st DCA Dec 22, 2009)

That’s the trap the plaintiffs in the linked-to opinion apparently fell into. Here are the key dates/facts as summarized by the 1st DCA:

The decedent, George Watts, a physician, died on November 18, 2004. The first notice to creditors was published on May 14, 2005. On October 31, 2005, the Macks first filed their claims against the Estate based on alleged medical malpractice in connection with surgery Dr. Watts performed on Susan Mack’s ankle. The Macks filed a malpractice action against the Estate on January 30, 2006. In February 2009, the Estate filed a petition in the probate court to limit the Macks’ claim in the malpractice action to the proceeds of malpractice insurance, see section 733.702(4)(b), Florida Statutes (2005), and the Macks filed petitions seeking to strike the Estate’s objections to their claims.

Wrapped up into that one short paragraph are three important takeaways for anyone involved in litigation against a Florida probate estate:

Lesson #1: Never, ever forget F.S. § 733.710(1): Florida’s two-year non-claim statute:

In the linked-to case the estate waited until February 2009, almost five years after the decedent died, to spring its trap on the unsuspecting plaintiffs. By then the two-year non-claim period for the estate had clearly run making it impossible for the plaintiffs to get the extension needed to preserve their claim against the probate estate. Here’s how the 1st DCA explained this point:

We agree with the trial court that the Macks’ claims against the estate are barred by sections 733.702(1)(3), and 733.710(1), Florida Statutes (2005). The Macks’ claims were filed more than three months from the date the notice to creditors was first published. See § 733.702(1). Further, the Macks did not file a request for an extension of time under section 733.702(3) until after the running of the two-year non-claim period in section 733.710(1). As the Supreme Court held in May v. Illinois National Insurance Company, 771 So.2d 1143, 1157 (Fla.2000), “section 733 .710 is a jurisdictional statute of nonclaim that automatically bars untimely claims and is not subject to waiver or extension in the probate proceeding.” The May court explained that this statute “represents a decision by the legislature that 2 years from the date of death is the outside time limit to which a decedent’s estate in Florida should be exposed by claims on the decedent’s assets.” Id. (quoting Comerica Bank & Trust, F.S.B. v. SDI Operating Partners, L.P., 673 So.2d 163, 167 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996)). Here, the Macks’ claims were untimely filed under section 733.702(1). Although section 733.702(3) provides for an extension, the claim and motion for an extension must be filed before the operation of the two-year non-claim provision. May, 771 So.2d at 1157.

Lesson #2: Never say never: Florida’s two-year non-claim statute doesn’t bar ALL claims:

Even if you blow past the two-year mark for perfecting your claim against a probate estate, all may not be lost. In the linked-to case the estate recognized that even though the plaintiffs were barred by F.S. § 733.710(1) from asserting claims against the decedent’s probate estate, the decedent’s malpractice insurance was still fair game under F.S. 733.702(4), which provides as follows:

(4) Nothing in this section affects or prevents:

(a) A proceeding to enforce any mortgage, security interest, or other lien on property of the decedent.

(b) To the limits of casualty insurance protection only, any proceeding to establish liability that is protected by the casualty insurance.

(c) The filing of a cross-claim or counterclaim against the estate in an action instituted by the estate; however, no recovery on a cross-claim or counterclaim shall exceed the estate’s recovery in that action.

Lesson #3: The clock starts ticking as soon as the first notice to creditors is published:

Under F.S. § 733.702 creditors have three months after the notice of creditors is fist published to file their claims. But F.S. 733.2121 says publication “shall be once a week for 2 consecutive weeks.” So when does the “publication” clock start ticking? After the first or second week? The plaintiffs tried to salvage their claim by arguing for week two. Nice try, but no cigar says the 1st DCA:

We also reject the Macks’ assertion that their claim was timely filed when measured from the date of publication of a second notice to creditors by the estate. The time period under section 733.702(1) runs from “the time of the first publication of the notice to creditors.” As the Supreme Court held in Estate of Williamson v. Murphy, 95 So.2d 244, 247 (Fla.1957), a second publication will be deemed “unnecessary surplusage” which has no “affect [on] the validity or effectiveness of the first notice published.”