Lubee v. Adams, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 163911 (Fla. 2d DCA January 20, 2012)
Are you a “reasonably ascertainable” creditor or not? If the answer is YES, then under F.S. 733.710 you have up to 2 years after the decedent dies to file your claim against the estate. If the answer is NO, then under F.S. 733.702 you only have 3 months after the estate’s “notice to creditors” is first published to file your claim. 3 months vs. 2 years. That’s a big difference.
This case is all about who has the burden of proving whether or not you’re a “reasonably ascertainable” creditor.
Personal representatives have a duty under F.S. 733.2121 to search out the decedent’s reasonably ascertainable creditors and personally serve them with a “notice to creditors.” Once personally served, reasonably ascertainable creditors have 30 days to file their claims.
In this case Mr. Lubee, the creditor, wasn’t identified by the personal representative as a reasonably ascertainable creditor of the estate, which means he was never served with a notice to creditors. Mr. Lubee saw things differently, arguing he was a reasonably ascertainable creditor, and as such he should have been personally served with a notice to creditors. Because he wasn’t served with a notice to creditors, Mr. Lubee argued the 30-day post service deadline applicable to him (as a reasonably ascertainable creditor) was never triggered, which means he could file his claim any time within 2 years after the decedent’s date of death (which he did).
Burden of Proof:
Mr. Lubee’s argument works if you assume ALL creditors are reasonably ascertainable, and it’s up to the estate to prove they’re NOT. His argument fails if you assume NO creditor is reasonably ascertainable, unless proven otherwise. Unfortunately for Mr. Lubee, first the trial court, then the 2d DCA ruled creditors bear the burden of proof, so his claim failed.
According to the 2d DCA, because Mr. Lubee wasn’t identified by the estate as a reasonably ascertainable creditor, he had two options:  file his claim within the 3-month post publication deadline generally applicable to all creditors; or  file for an extension of time under F.S. 733.702(3) within the 2-year window of F.S. 733.710, prove his status as a reasonably ascertainable creditor within the context of that proceeding, then subsequently file his creditor claim. He did neither, so his claim failed as a matter of law. By the way, this two-step process is the exact same formula previously adopted by the 1st DCA in Morgenthau v. Estate of Andzel, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 5151741 (Fla. 1st DCA Dec 31, 2009), which I wrote about here.
Bottom line, when in doubt, no one’s a reasonably ascertainable creditor until a court says you are. Here’s how the 2d DCA explained its ruling:
There is no dispute that Mr. Lubee did not file his claim in the probate proceeding within three months following the publication of notice to creditors and that he did not file a motion for extension of time or otherwise seek an extension. There is also no dispute that Mr. Lubee was not served with a copy of the notice to creditors pursuant to sections 733.702(1) and 733.2121(3)(a). However, Mr. Lubee contends that because he was a readily ascertainable creditor entitled to be served with a copy of the notice to creditors pursuant to those sections, he was only required to file his claim in the probate proceeding within thirty days after service of the notice on him or, at a maximum, within two years of the decedent’s death. He argues that because he was never served with the notice to creditors, he timely filed his claim within the two-year window of section 733.710.
Because a notice to creditors was published on November 16, 2007, creditors not entitled to actual notice were required to file their claims on or before February 16, 2008. See § 733.702(1). Creditors who were served with the notice to creditors were required to file their claims within thirty days following service. See id. Because he was not served with a copy of the notice to creditors, Mr. Lubee was required to file his claim in the probate proceeding within the three-month window following publication. Alternatively, Mr. Lubee could seek an extension from the probate court pursuant to section 733.702(3) within the two-year window of section 733.710. See Morgenthau v. Estate of Andzel, 26 So.3d 628, 632 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009) [click here]; cf. Miller v. Estate of Baer, 837 So.2d 448, 449 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002) (affirming order enforcing claim against estate where creditor failed to file claim within three-month window of section 733.702(1) but did file motion for extension of time within two-year window of section 733.710). It is undisputed that he did neither. Mr. Lubee’s filing of his claim in the probate proceeding within two years of the decedent’s death did not amount to a request for an extension of time and did not otherwise comply with the requirements of section 733.702. Mr. Lubee’s claim in the probate proceeding was untimely and therefore barred. As a result, the issue of whether or not Mr. Lubee was a readily ascertainable creditor was immaterial in the civil proceeding, and the trial court correctly granted partial summary judgment in favor of the personal representative.