Florida is a perennial favorite for international home buyers and Snow Birds migrating from the Northeast to the South. Which means a lot of people own property in Florida, but reside and work in another state or country, frequently owning property in several jurisdictions.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that multi-jurisdictional estates (be it the state-to-state or country-to-country variety) are a large part of our practice here in Florida. The jurisdictional issues these cases raise in probate and non-probate proceedings are dramatically different. This case highlights what can go wrong when a jurisdictional clause found in our Probate Code is plucked out of context and used in a non-probate civil lawsuit.

Juega v. Davidson, — So.3d —-, 2012 WL 6601969 (Fla. 3d DCA December 19, 2012):

Simon Davidson died a resident of the Costa del Sol town of Marbella, Spain. A Spanish court appointed Luis M. Juega — a Spanish citizen and resident of Marbella — to serve as administrator of Simon’s estate. According to Juega, when Simon died his brother, Stanley Davidson, owed him $5 million, based on a loan secured by property located in Miami, Florida. So Juega packed his bags and came to Miami, suing Stanley for payment of the $5 million debt. Juega’s foray into Miami’s court system wasn’t without its setbacks (which I’ve previously written about here).

This time around the issue was whether Juega could be sued individually in Florida. Apparently believing that a good offense is the best defense, Stanley countersued Juega individually for civil conspiracy and conversion. Juega cried foul, asserting he couldn’t be sued individually because the Miami court lacked personal jurisdiction over him. Stanley argued Juega — who originally appeared in this case as a foreign personal representative or “PR” — was in fact subject to the Miami court’s personal jurisdiction based on F.S. 734.201(3), which provides as follows:

Jurisdiction by act of foreign personal representative.—A foreign personal representative submits personally to the jurisdiction of the courts of this state in any proceeding concerning the estate by: . . . (3) Doing any act as a personal representative in this state that would have given the state jurisdiction over that person as an individual.

Under Florida law if you actively participate in Florida litigation, you’ve submitted yourself to the court’s personal jurisdiction. The 3d DCA’s opinion doesn’t give us much detail, but I’m guessing Stanley’s lawyers argued that Juega’s participation in the Miami lawsuit would have subjected him to the court’s personal jurisdiction if he’d acted individually, so this same conduct as a foreign PR meant F.S. 734.201(3) was triggered. Bottom line: trial court ruled it had personal jurisdiction over Juega.

Not so fast said the 3d DCA. Why? Because F.S. 734.201 is part of Florida’s Probate Code. Like any other provision of our Probate Code, it only applies if there’s a pending Florida probate proceeding. And was there a Florida probate proceeding pending in this case? NO. According to the 3d DCA:

Here, there was no ancillary estate opened in Florida, nor was Juega ever appointed a “personal representative” by the circuit court.

And if there’s no Florida probate proceeding, you can’t cherry pick a Probate Code clause to litigate your non-probate civil case. This is an important point that often gets lost in non-probate lawsuits (like trust cases) that usually get litigated before our probate judges. According to the 3d DCA:

Juega correctly argues that the Probate Code is, in this case, inapplicable. As the Florida Supreme Court has stated, “[t]he Florida Probate Code constitutes a unified statutory scheme intended to govern all probate matters—section 731.102, Florida Statutes (2007), expressly states that the probate code ‘is intended as unified coverage of its subject matter.'” Hill v. Davis, 70 So.3d 572 (quoting § 731.102, Fla. Stat. (2007)) (emphasis added). There is simply no basis for the appellees’ assertion that by virtue of participating in a civil action in capacities other than as an individual, Juega submitted to the jurisdiction of the court under the Probate Code. See also Crescenze v. Bothe, 4 So.3d 31, 33 (Fla. 2d DCA 2009) (addressing a different section of the Probate Code but finding that “[i]t is clear from the language of the statute and its place in Chapter 733 of the Probate Code that section 733.710(1) applies exclusively to claims against an estate in a probate proceeding and has no application in a civil action to terminate a trust.”) (emphasis added).

OK, so we can all agree this ruling makes sense as a general proposition, but how do you get around the plain text of F.S. 734.201, which seems to apply to “foreign” PRs — like Juega. If you’re a probate geek (like yours truly!), this is where the opinion really gets interesting.

Our Probate Code’s teaming with defined terms of art. A word or phrase that may have one meaning in general conversation can have a totally different meaning in the specific context of our Probate Code. Case in point: “foreign personal representative”. Most of us would think that phrase applies to people like Juega, who were appointed by a Spanish court to administer a Spanish estate. And we’d be wrong. Why? Because under our Probate Code you’re not a “foreign personal representative” unless a Florida court’s appointed you to serve as PR of a Florida ancillary estate. If there’s no Florida ancillary estate, there’s no “foreign personal representative” as far as our Probate Code’s concerned. Which means F.S. 734.201 doesn’t apply. Here’s how the 3d DCA makes this hyper-technical statutory construction point:

The Probate Code defines “foreign personal representative” as “a personal representative of another state or a foreign country.” § 731.201(17), Fla. Stat. The code further defines “personal representative” as “the fiduciary appointed by the court to administer the estate and refers to what has been known as an administrator, administrator cum testamento annexo, administrator de bonis non, ancillary administrator, ancillary executor, or executor.” § 731.201(28), Fla. Stat. Furthermore, “court” is defined in the statute as “the circuit court.” § 731.201(7), Florida Statutes.

Lesson learned?

Judges are generalists. Show them a statute, and they’ll do what it says. Ask them to get into the weeds of statutory construction, and their eyes glaze over. And current case loads mean you should assume your beautifully researched statutory-construction brief isn’t going to get read by anyone. Which means this kind of issue-specific appellate decision can be very helpful; you can pull it out in the middle of a hearing and say “see judge, it says right here you’re supposed to read the statute this way.” That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to win the argument, but it helps. If you do much international work you’ll want to hold onto this opinion.

Note to readers:

The linked-to opinion was 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 report on older cases I wasn’t able to get to previously.