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Platt v. Osteen, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 6629650 (Fla. 5th DCA December 21, 2012)

The outcome of this inheritance dispute turned on two questions: first, was the decedent’s will valid, and second, did the party challenging its validity have a stake in the outcome as a “virtually adopted” intestate heir (see here, here, here for more on the test for virtual adoption in Florida). If the challenger lost on either of these two issues, the case was over.

Virtual adoption = standing:

So which question gets decided first; the will contest or the virtual-adoption case? According to the 5th DCA, the virtual-adoption case establishes standing, so it goes first.

[W]e reverse and remand with directions that the trial court determine whether Platt has standing to contest the will;FN1 and, if she does, to adjudicate Platt’s challenge to the will before taking any action on the petition for administration.

FN1. Platt is a beneficiary under the will and is listed in the will, along with Osteen, as a daughter of the decedent. It is undisputed that Platt was not the decedent’s biological daughter and was never legally adopted by him. However, it also appears undisputed that the decedent raised Platt as his daughter from the age of three. As Platt alleges sufficient facts to establish all elements of virtual adoption, see Matter of Heirs of Hodge, 470 So.2d 740, 741 (Fla. 5th DCA 1985), she is entitled to an evidentiary hearing as to this issue.

Makes sense to me. By the way, how the virtual-adoption issue is “framed” can make a huge difference in terms of whether or not common sense prevails in your case. If you frame the issue in terms of “judicial economy” (i.e., why waste time/money litigating a claim if the challenger isn’t an intestate heir?), you’re undoubtedly right as a practical matter, but you might end up getting reversed on procedural grounds (which is exactly what happened in the McMullen case). But if (as was done in this case) you frame the virtual-adoption issue in terms of “standing” (i.e., we need to determine whether or not she can even bring a will contest as a predicate to deciding the validity of the will), not only does your argument pass the common-sense test, it’s also bullet proof on procedural grounds.

And yes, filing a caveat means something:

The second take-away from this case is how uncertain any contested probate proceeding can be. Even the simplest, most black-and-white legal rule can get swept aside in the rush to move huge caseloads through our overworked and underfunded probate courts (which is why we should all privatize these disputes by including mandatory arbitration clauses in all our wills/trusts). Case in point: how do you make sure a contested will doesn’t get admitted to probate before your client’s had her day in court? Simple, file a caveat (see here), followed by an answer and objection to administration. And that’s exactly what the challenger did in this case. So what happened next? The probate judge ignored it all and simply admitted the contested will to probate. Bottom line, we now have an appellate decision stating the obvious: you can’t admit a challenged will to probate before the will contest is adjudicated.

Elaine D. Platt timely appeals an order admitting the will of Martin S. Day to probate and appointing Sharon Day Osteen as personal representative. After Osteen filed a petition for administration of Day’s will, Platt filed a caveat, followed by an answer and objection to administration of the will. Under Florida law, will contests and the rights of caveators must be determined prior to admitting a will to probate, appointing a personal representative or issuing letters of administration. See, e.g., Rocca v. Boyansky, 80 So.3d 377 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012) (see here); In re Estate of Hartman, 836 So.2d 1038 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002); Grooms v. Royce, 638 So.2d 1019 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994); see also 18 Fla. Jur.2d Decedents’ Property § 494 (“After the filing of a caveat by an interested person other than a creditor, the court may not admit a will of the decedent to probate or appoint a personal representative without service of formal notice on the caveator or the caveator’s designated agent. [Fla. Prob. R. 5.260(f).] Thus, if a caveat is filed, a formal notice of the submission of a will for probate must be given, and the court must thereafter adjudicate any challenge to the will before admitting the will to probate.”). Here, without notice to Platt, the trial court simply entered an order admitting the decedent’s will to probate, erroneously finding that “no objection [had] been made to its probate [.]” Accordingly, we reverse and remand with directions that the trial court . . .  adjudicate Platt’s challenge to the will before taking any action on the petition for administration.