Griffith v. Slade, 95 So.3d 982 (Fla. 2d DCA August 22, 2012)

Contesting durable powers of attorney (DPOA’s) is the kind of case that usually ends up on a probate litigator’s desk. Probate matters are all in rem proceedings. Since in rem proceedings aren’t based on personal jurisdiction, probate litigators (like me) get used to litigating cases without ever having to go through the trouble of personally serving anyone. Here’s the problem: this mindset can be a trap when you run across a case that “feels” like a probate matter, but isn’t. Prime example: DPOA litigation.

Is personal service of process needed to challenge a DPOA? YES.

When family members contest a DPOA’s validity, it’s usually a thinly-veiled inheritance dispute. This means these cases look and feel a lot like your standard probate case. They’re not. One big difference: DPOA cases are NOT in rem proceedings; you need to personally serve opposing parties if you want your winning court order to mean anything. In the linked-to case above the contesting parties skipped this step, relying instead on the old probate standby: service by certified mail. This cut-to-the-chase approach may have worked with the trial judge, but it fell flat on appeal. Here’s why:

[In this case], neither a summons nor other process was issued, and service of process was not accomplished. Griffith was sent a “Notice of Hearing” via certified mail. Although Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.070(i) provides that defendants may accept service of process by mail and waive formal service, the rule has strict requirements that were not followed here. For example, there is no evidence in the record that the “Notice of Hearing” was accompanied by the petition, requested that Griffith waive service of a summons, or informed Griffith of the consequences of compliance or failure to comply with the request to waive service. See [Shurman v. Atl. Mortg. & Inv. Corp., 795 So.2d 952, 954 (Fla.2001)]. Significantly, “[a] judgment entered without service of process is void and will be set aside and stricken from the record on a motion at anytime.” Myrick v. Walters, 666 So.2d 249, 250 (Fla. 2d DCA 1996) (quoting Kennedy v. Richmond, 512 So.2d 1129, 1130 (Fla. 4th DCA 1987)) (alteration added).

We have also considered the possible effect of the notice requirements contained in section 709.08, Florida Statutes (2010)[FN1]. Section 709.08(5) provides in pertinent part as follows:

(a) A notice, including, but not limited to, a notice of revocation, notice of partial or complete termination by adjudication of incapacity or by the occurrence of an event referenced in the durable power of attorney, notice of death of the principal, notice of suspension by initiation of proceedings to determine incapacity or to appoint a guardian, or other notice, is not effective until written notice is served upon the attorney in fact or any third persons relying upon a durable power of attorney.

(b) Notice must be in writing and served on the person or entity to be bound by the notice. Service may be by any form of mail that requires a signed receipt or by personal delivery as provided for service of process. Service is complete when received by interested persons or entities specified in this section and in chapter 48, where applicable.

The statute does not contemplate an alternative method for service of process, but rather it addresses the notice referenced by section 709.08(4)(a), which provides: “Any third party may rely upon the authority granted in a durable power of attorney that is not conditioned on the principal’s lack of capacity to manage property until the third party has received notice as provided in subsection (5).” In other words, a notice may be issued that informs the recipient that a person may no longer have authority to act pursuant to a power of attorney. However, such notice is not sufficient to bring a person within the jurisdiction of a court for legal proceedings. Indeed, nothing in the statute suggests that it may be used instead of service of process to bring a person before the court.

Although we acknowledge the circuit court’s concern over the alleged behavior of Griffith, “[p]rocedural due process requires that each litigant be given proper notice and a full and fair opportunity to be heard.” Carmona v. Wal–Mart Stores, E., LP, 81 So.3d 461, 463 (Fla. 2d DCA 2011). Griffith was afforded neither.

Because service of process was never properly accomplished or waived, we reverse the order terminating Griffith’s power of attorney and the order denying her motion to strike and set aside the order terminating her power of attorney. 

[FN1]: In 2011, the Florida Legislature substantially revised and renumbered Chapter 709, and repealed sections 709.01, 709.015, 709.08 and 709.11. Ch.2011–210, § 33, at 3273, Laws of Fla. (2011) [click here]. These changes became effective on October 1, 2011, and are not applicable to the case at bar.