Listen to this post

The linked-to opinion is yet another example of yet another plaintiffs lawyer seeing his trial-court win go up in smoke because he blew a probate creditor filing deadline. The last time I wrote about this problem was a med-mal case. This time around it was a personal injury case arising out of an automobile/ motorcycle accident.

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 decedent’s liability is established); and
  2. The probate court administering the decedent’s probate estate (this is where you go to collect on your judgment).

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

Grainger v. Wald, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 479862 (Fla. 1st DCA Feb 12, 2010)

In the linked-to opinion above the plaintiff eventually prevailed in his lawsuit, but the judgment wasn’t rendered until after the decedent’s death. In order to collect on his judgment, plaintiff needed to file a creditor claim against the probate estate of the now deceased defendant. This is where things went south for the plaintiff (and a good probate lawyer working for the estate snatched victory from the jaws of defeat!!).

At some time during the course of the litigation plaintiff’s personal injury attorney was served with a “creditors notice” in connection with the probate proceeding. The personal injury lawyer apparently ignored this notice, which ultimately resulted in his trial court win being forfeited (ouch!!). Here are the key facts/dates as recounted by the 1st DCA:

Wald was involved in an automobile/motorcycle accident with the decedent and brought a personal injury lawsuit to recover damages. Wald eventually prevailed in his lawsuit, but the judgment was not rendered until after the decedent’s death. Some time after obtaining the judgment, Wald filed a claim against the probate estate.

The personal representative argued she had served notice on Wald’s attorney as required by Florida Probate Rule 5.041(b) (2009) on May 23, 2007, thus triggering the time constraints of section 733.702(1). Therefore, under the statute, Wald had until June 22, 2007, to file any claim he might have. Since Wald’s claim was not filed until July 2, 2007, the personal representative argued it was untimely and forever barred .

So far so good for the estate. But then the probate judge did something the 1st DCA characterized as “bizarre”: he declared the estate’s creditor notice wasn’t valid because plaintiff’s personal injury attorney had been served instead of plaintiff’s probate attorney. What?! Yeah, that’s what the 1st DCA said too.

There are two reasons why the probate court erred in finding the time constraints of section 733.702(1) inapplicable.

First, the Florida Probate Rules do not make any distinction based on the scope of an attorney’s representation of a client. A personal representative would have no way of knowing such information. These descriptive labels, such as “probate” attorney or “personal injury” attorney do not appear in the Rule 5.041(b), which governs the service of pleadings and papers in probate actions. Instead, the Rule simply requires that if a creditor is represented by an attorney, service must be on the attorney and not on the creditor. The language of Rule 5.041(b) states that “when service is required or permitted to be made on an interested person represented by an attorney, service shall be made on the attorney unless service on the interested person is ordered by the court.” (emphasis added). …

Second, regardless of whether the attorney served was labeled the “probate” or the “personal injury” attorney, the record reflects that Wald had actual notice and that he received notice in time to file the claim. Wald received all process that was due. The record contains Wald’s original statement of claim against the estate. Although the claim was not filed until July 2, 2007, Wald signed the claim on June 16, 2007-at least six days before the time for filing claims was to expire. “[D]ue process requires the personal representative to give notice by any means that is certain to ensure actual notice of the running of the non-claim period.” Estate of Ortolano, 766 So.2d 330, 332 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000) (emphasis added). Considering the date of Wald’s signature, he had actual notice and sufficient time to file a claim within the 30-day statute of limitations. Therefore, any failure was not in the service of the notice, but in the untimely filing of the claim. Since there was no excuse for Wald’s failure to file the claim in a timely manner, it should have been declared time barred under section 733.702(1).