In re Estate of Harrison, Slip Copy, 2010 WL 503077 (Bankr.M.D.Fla. Jan 29, 2010)

fiduciary-dutyAn overarching theme of Florida’s probate code is the tension between basic due-process rights on the one hand and Florida’s strong public policy favoring the speedy administration of estates on the other. Florida’s 2-year non-claim statute [F.S. 733.710] epitomizes this tension because of its simplicity and utter disregard for equitable considerations. When it comes to unsecured creditors, after 2 years it’s game over . . . period, no exceptions.

In the linked-to opinion the unsecured probate creditor –  UK insurance giant Lloyd’s of London – cried foul when the debtor’s son strategically waited two years and one day! to commence his father’s probate proceeding . . . thereby automatically triggering application of Florida’s 2-year non-claim statute . . . thereby automatically barring all of his father’s unsecured creditor claims, including Lloyd’s. Lloyd’s argued that the debtor’s son – the designated personal representative under his father’s will – had an affirmative duty to advise his father’s creditors that they needed to open a probate proceeding in Florida and file a claim within two years of the debtor’s date of death.

While a personal representative does have affirmative duties to estate creditors after he’s appointed, those duties don’t apply before he’s appointed. This was the hole in Lloyd’s argument, and why the estate won this one. Here’s how the judge summarized the key legal issues:

As a matter of law, Randolph Harrison, as the beneficiary and named personal representative, had no affirmative or fiduciary duty before his appointment as personal representative. Florida Statute 733.601 is clear that a personal representative’s duties commence upon appointment. Prior to his official appointment, Randolph Harrison had no affirmative duty as a fiduciary; he had no fiduciary relationship with the English Creditors; and he had no duty to notify them of the Florida legal structure or their opportunity to open a probate estate or file a claim. The only allegation against Randolph Harrison is that he kept his silence for two years and a day. The Court holds as a matter of law that that is not a breach of any duty. Additionally, his silence about Florida law is not fraud. There is no statutory or common law requirement to urge a creditor, who obviously knew about the death of its obligor and who apparently knew about assets in Florida, to open probate in Florida. .  .  .  It was incumbent upon the English Creditors to familiarize themselves with Florida law, open a probate and file a claim. For whatever reason, the English Creditors elected not to do so.

There was simply no fraud in Randolph Harrison waiting to open the Florida probate. There is absolutely no requirement under probate law that creditors of a decedent be paid before beneficiaries receive anything. In fact, the statutory scheme suggests the opposite. The whole substance of having a non-claims bar like Section 733.710 is to allow a beneficiary to receive assets free of creditor claims after the two-year period. For a beneficiary to take advantage of that legal structure is not fraud.

Lesson learned?

If you’re going to try to run the 2-year non-claim statute clock on your creditors, don’t even open the estate. Do nothing. Unless a creditor takes the extraordinary step of commencing a probate proceeding just to collect on his debt, the estate wins by default.