Albelo v. Southern Oak Ins. Co., — So.3d —-, 2013 WL 440199 (Fla. 3d DCA February 06, 2013)

Durable powers of attorney (DPOA’s) empower disabled or incapacitated adults to manage their business and personal affairs privately and without court supervision. This includes handling litigation. That’s the law. If you don’t like it, get the law changed . . . but don’t try to wish the issue away by making frivolous arguments in court.

In In re Estate of Schiver, 441 So. 2d 1105 (Fla. 5th DCA 1983), the 5th DCA held that an attorney-in-fact acting pursuant to a properly drafted DPOA could elect the principal’s right to an elective share. According to the 5th DCA:

[DPOA’s have] the beneficial effect of avoiding the time, expense and embarrassment involved in having to establish guardianships for incompetent persons. . . . The holder of a [DPOA] is appointed by the donor of the power, and essentially performs the same functions as would a court appointed guardian. While not a “guardian” in the legal sense, the attorney in fact has fiduciary duties similar in nature.

In Smith v. Lynch, 821 So. 2d 1197 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002), the 4th DCA upheld a probate judge’s refusal to appoint a guardian for a legally incapacitated adult who had previously executed a valid DPOA. According to the 4th DCA “the appointment of a guardian would serve no useful purpose and would unnecessarily interfere with the family.” In support of its decision, the 4th DCA cited F.S. 744.344, which provides that an “order appointing a guardian must be consistent with the incapacitated person’s welfare and safety, must be the least restrictive appropriate alternative, and must reserve to the incapacitated person the right to make decisions in matters commensurate with the person’s ability to do so.”

Bottom line, our legislature intended DPOA’s to be private, non-court supervised, less restrictive alternatives to guardianships. This is basic stuff for Florida probate lawyers. But is it so basic it’s frivolous to even argue otherwise? YES.

3d DCA: 57.105 sanctions triggered by arguing against DPOA and for guardianship:

In the linked-to case above a 78-year old woman executed a valid DPOA in favor of her son. Acting under the authority of this DPOA, son sued mom’s property-insurance company (Southern Oak Insurance Company) seeking to recover damages to mom’s home caused by a burglary. By the time son filed suit on mom’s behalf it was undisputed she was suffering from age-related cognitive disabilities. According to Southern Oak this meant mom’s claim could only be prosecuted by a court-appointed guardian. For reasons unexplained in the 3d DCA’s opinion, Southern Oak somehow convinced the trial judge to buy into its argument, resulting in a dismissal of mom’s lawsuit. This is the kind of ruling that drives probate lawyers nuts. On appeal, it apparently  struck a nerve with the 3d DCA as well (in a bad way!).

This is an appeal by an octogenarian, Maximiliana Albelo, from a trial court order dismissing her premises liability complaint with prejudice, for failure to file a petition in probate to determine her own incapacity. We summarily reverse the order on appeal and grant Albelo’s motion for an award of appellate attorney fees pursuant to section 57.105(1), Florida Statutes (2011). We write only to explain the reasons for our award of sanctions against Southern Oak Insurance Company and its counsel.

This is a garden-variety premises liability claim brought by Albelo for damages to her home caused by a burglary. The burglary and the existence of a loss are conceded. It is equally undisputed Albelo suffers from age-related cognitive disabilities. Although Southern Oak did not receive notice of the claim until more than a year after the burglary, the company paid $1690 on her claim. A few months later, Albelo filed a sworn proof of loss, supported by a public adjuster’s estimate in the amount of $57,760.66. Southern Oak is of the view the sworn claim is fraudulent and instigated not by Albelo, but rather by her son. Southern Oak also is concerned about the binding effect a judgment obtained by Albelo might have against it in the future.

Albelo responds that in April 2007—one month before the burglary, when she was seventy-eight years old—she duly executed a Durable Power of Attorney (DPA) in favor of her son. Section 709.2119, Florida Statutes (2012), regulating powers of attorneys and similar instruments, provides explicit protection to Southern Oak in the circumstances of this case. It states:

(1)(a) A third person who in good faith accepts a power of attorney that appears to be executed in the manner required by law at the time of its execution may rely upon the power of attorney and the actions of the agent which are reasonably within the scope of the agent’s authority and may enforce any obligation created by the actions of the agent as if:

1. The power of attorney were genuine, valid, and still in effect;

2. The agent’s authority were genuine, valid, and still in effect; and

3. The authority of the officer executing for or on behalf of a financial institution that has trust powers and acting as agent is genuine, valid, and still in effect.

§ 709.2119. Southern Oak does not contest the formalities of execution and has not sought to rescind the power of attorney on the ground Albelo was incompetent at the time she executed the document. Southern Oak’s and its counsel’s persistence in arguing Albelo was required to seek a guardian for herself as a condition of continuing this action was frivolous.

Added Bonus:

For those of you caught up in a similar case, you may find the research reflected in the Appellant’s winning Initial Brief on appeal helpful.