Kates v. Lifter, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 832802 (Fla. 3d DCA March 14, 2012)

Judge Schwartz reminds us that all circuit court judges share the same inherent jurisdictional authority; it doesn’t matter if he or she’s deciding a will contest or adjudicating a murder trial. The various divisions of a court operate for the convenience of the litigants and for the efficiency of the administration of the circuits’ judicial business, what they don’t do is create jurisdictional boundaries.

Our state circuit courts are usually split up into specialty divisions, as authorized by Article V, § 7, of the Florida Constitution.

For example, my home circuit court in Miami-Dade, the 11th, has six specialty divisions: Circuit Civil, Circuit Criminal, Family, Juvenile, Probate, and the Unified Family Court (UFC) division. And pursuant to the 11th Circuit’s Admin. Order 1-14-07 A1, Miami’s Probate division also hears all trust-related claims.

But just because a circuit court’s specialized divisions adjudicate different types of cases, doesn’t mean a judge sitting in one division (e.g., Probate) lacks authority to adjudicate a type of case usually handled in another division (e.g., a corporate dispute usually tried in Circuit Civil or a custody dispute usually decided in the Family division). You’d be surprised how often lawyers (and judges) seem to miss this basic point.

In the linked-to opinion above Senior Judge Schwartz penned a concurring opinion reminding us that all circuit court judges share the same jurisdictional authority, no matter what division they happen to be serving in.

Is a probate judge’s “jurisdictional” authority limited to only probate-related matters? NO

Although the opinion doesn’t give us much in terms of facts, from what I can gather there was some kind of dispute involving “sweetheart” loans and a corporation that was at least partially owned by a trust. At trial the probate judge adjudicated related claims involving both the trust and the corporation. On appeal the losing side cried foul, arguing that the “probate court” had no authority over the corporation, and that a new and different proceeding in a “non-probate court” had to be prosecuted to achieve the same result. This argument went nowhere on appeal. Judge Schwartz explains why:

The basis for my vote is that the judge of the circuit court who made the decision on review had complete jurisdiction over both aspects of the existing litigation and that it does not matter in which division of the court he happened to find himself. As this Court has stated:

[E]very judge of the circuit court possesses the full jurisdiction of that court in his or her circuit and that the various divisions of that court operate in multi-judge circuits for the convenience of the litigants and for the efficiency of the administration of the circuits’ judicial business.

Maugeri v. Plourde, 396 So.2d 1215, 1217 (Fla. 3d DCA 1981); see Baudanza v. Baudanza, 78 So.3d 656 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012). In other words, there is no such thing as “a” or “the” Florida Probate Court with the limited jurisdiction the appellants argue is fatal to the order on review. The decisions which represent this position are based on [Gettinger v. Gettinger, 165 So.2d 757 (Fla.1964)]. But that case was decided in 1964, when there was a “probate court” in Florida, the County Judges’ Court. While it is understandable in view of the well-known judicial tendency to cling resolutely to the past, Parker v. Shullman, 906 So.2d 1236 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005), review denied, 915 So.2d 1196 (Fla.2005), for example, overlooked that, as recently as 1973, the County Judges’ Court was abolished and its jurisdiction transferred to the circuit court. See Art. V, § 20(c)(3), Fla. Const. (Rev.1972). I believe that this fact renders Gettinger obsolete and more modern authority which follows it incorrect.

Lesson learned?

All circuit court judges have the same inherent authority; it doesn’t matter if he or she’s deciding a will contest or adjudicating a murder trial: same authority. If you’re convinced a claim’s being litigated in the wrong division, the proper remedy is to file a motion seeking to transfer the case to the correct division. See Weaver v. Hotchkiss, 972 So. 2d 1060 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008); Fort v. Fort, 951 So. 2d 1020 (Fla. 1st DCA 2007). At its heart this is an administrative-convenience argument, not a jurisdictional challenge.

On the other hand, even when owned 100% by a decedent or trustee, corporations retain their separate legal existence, which means the corporation’s assets don’t automatically become assets of the probate estate or get sucked into a related breach-of-trust suit. As I’ve previously reported (see here and here), when probate judges get this point wrong it’s usually not because they lack subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the claim; more likely than not it’s a problem involving a failure to properly serve the corporation as a separate legal entity.

Note to readers:

The linked-to opinion above was first published in 2012. I try to report on cases as they’re published. I don’t always succeed. This blog post is part of an ongoing project to comment on older cases I wasn’t able to get to previously.