Piloto v. Lauria, — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 4103017 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct 20, 2010)

Increasing numbers of people have connections with one country, but live and work in another, frequently owning property or investments in several countries. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that every day more and more Florida estates are impacted by multi-national issues.

What’s a probate lawyer to do?

Focus on a couple of guiding principles that only apply to multinational estates; then work the case like you would any other ancillary estate under Ch. 734 of Florida’s Probate Code. In Nahar v. Nahar, 656 So.2d 225 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995), the court identified the two guiding principles that apply to any Florida court attempting to reconcile the separate arrangements for ownership, taxation, and succession governing multinational estates.

  1. “Administration of an estate is governed by the law of the decedent’s domicile”; and
  2. “[w]here a party has had notice and opportunity to be heard and the foreign court has satisfied Florida’s jurisdictional and due process requirements[,] their orders will be entitled to comity.” Id. at 229-30.

These principles were very much in play in this case. Here’s how the 4th DCA summarized the key facts and foreign probate judgment at issue:

The decedent was survived by his wife and four adult children from a prior marriage. He died intestate, that is, without a will. The probate of his estate occurred in his domicile of Venezuela. A Venezuelan court entered a judgment finding that his wife and children were the sole heirs of his estate. The face of the judgment, however, makes no further findings and does not appoint a personal representative for the estate.

Key take-away points from this summary:

  1. Decedent’s domicile: Venezuela.
  2. Decedent died intestate, i.e., without a will.
  3. Limited scope of Venezuelan probate judgment: the Venezuelan probate judgment did NOT appointment a personal representative (PR) for the decedent’s estate.

Both the probate judge and the 4th DCA agreed the Venezuelan probate judgment did NOT appointment a personal representative (PR) for the decedent’s estate. As such, the key legal issue here in Florida was who should be appointed PR.

F.S. 734.102 governs the appointment of PR’s for ancillary estates. According to that statute, if the decedent dies intestate you’re supposed to apply the rules generally applicable in Florida for the appointment of PRs, which are found in F.S. 733.301. Under that statute the surviving widow is first in line to be PR, and that’s how the Florida probate court ruled. Right answer!, says the 4th DCA. Here’s why:

[The] first four sentences [of subsection (1) of F.S. 734.102] all address a situation in which the decedent dies testate, that is, with a will. Subsection (1)’s fifth sentence . . . is the only sentence which addresses what occurs “[i]f the decedent dies intestate.” In that situation, “the order of preference for appointment of a personal representative as prescribed in this code shall apply.” As the circuit court found, that language directs us to section 733.301(1)(b), Florida Statutes (2008), which provides that, in granting letters of administration in intestate estates, the order of preference is “[t]he surviving spouse” followed by “[t]he person selected by a majority in interest of the heirs.” Such an interpretation does not conflict with [subsection (4) of F.S. 734.102]’s insistence that “[a]ll proceedings for appointment and administration of an estate shall be as similar to those in original administrations as possible.” Here, the original administration did not involve the appointment of any personal representative, so appointing the wife as the ancillary personal representative does not conflict with the original administration.