jurisdiction-in-remIn contested probate and trust proceedings, if you hear the word “jurisdiction” being used as part of the litigation, it’s probably coming up in one of two contexts. Either your probate judge didn’t have the legal authority to order that certain property be disposed of in a certain way (i.e., the court lacked “in rem” jurisdiction); or your probate judge didn’t have the legal authority to order someone do something personally that they’d really rather not do, such as paying a sanction with personal funds (i.e., the court lacked “in personam” jurisdiction).

These jurisdictional arguments are attractive to litigators because you’re contesting a trial court’s interpretation of the law (an argument that’s always viable on appeal) vs. a trial court’s interpretation of contested issues of fact (an argument that’s almost always a loser on appeal).

What follows are two recent cases turning on whether a probate judge had in rem jurisdiction over contested property. In a subsequent post I’ll write about two recent cases turning on whether a probate judge had personal jurisdiction over certain parties. Read these four cases together and you’ll have a good idea of how these esoteric-sounding concepts play themselves out in the very real rough and tumble world of trusts and estates litigation.

Does a probate judge have in rem jurisdiction to decide how the proceeds of a wrongful-death case should be split?

Pitcher v. Waldo, 159 So.3d 422 (Fla. 4th DCA March 25, 2015)

This case involves a dispute between a father and mother over how the proceeds of the wrongful-death lawsuit arising out of their daughter’s death should be divided between the two of them. “Mom”, as PR, prosecuted the lawsuit (only PRs can prosecute wrongful-death suits, see F.S. 768.20). According to “Dad”, he and Mom had agreed to share any award 60/40. Mom apparently remembered things differently after the trial, in which the jury awarded her $1,000,000 and only $100,000 to Dad (i.e., a 91/9 split).

The jury awarded nothing to the deceased daughter’s estate. This last point is key for jurisdictional purposes: because none of the jury’s award was an asset of the probate estate, these were all non-probate funds, which means the probate judge didn’t have in rem jurisdiction over any of it. If Dad wants to litigate any kind of deal he may have had with Mom, he’ll have to do it in a brand new lawsuit, he can’t skip that step by simply filing a petition in the probate proceeding. So saith the 4th DCA:

Appellant sought relief pursuant to section 733.815, Florida Statutes (2012), which provides that interested persons can agree to alter their shares of property from an estate. That statute is inapplicable, because the estate had no assets. Although a wrongful death claim must be brought by the personal representative of the estate of the deceased, the survivor’s claims are for their survivors’ sole benefit and do not become part of the estate. See § 768.21, Fla. Stat. (2012); Hartford Ins. Co. v. Goff, 4 So.3d 770, 773 (Fla. 2d DCA 2009). As the alleged agreement was between the father and mother but not the estate, the trial court correctly concluded that it had no jurisdiction to adjudicate the dispute.

Does a Florida probate judge have in rem jurisdiction to decide how Georgia real estate should be distributed?

Brown v. Brown, — So.3d —-, 2015 WL 4269921 (Fla. 4th DCA July 15, 2015) 

The decedent at the heart of this contested probate proceeding apparently owned property in Florida and Georgia. There was a dispute over how the Georgia property should be divided. A Florida probate judge’s in rem jurisdictional authority over property ends at the borders of our state. If you want a probate court to decide how real estate in Georgia should be divided, you need to go to Georgia and file an ancillary probate proceeding in that state to be adjudicated by a Georgia judge. That didn’t happen here. Instead, the Florida judge entered one order covering all of the decedent’s property — including his Georgia real estate. That may have made sense as a practical matter (a determination that’s bullet proof on appeal), but it doesn’t hold up legally (the ultimate appellate weapon). Bottom line, the party that didn’t like how the Florida judge divided up the Georgia real estate gets a do-over in Georgia. So saith the 4th DCA:

An estate beneficiary appeals from the circuit court’s final order directing the personal representative to divide and distribute “the [decedent’s] Georgia real estate and Florida real estate and other miscellaneous inventory assets of the Estate” amongst several estate beneficiaries. The appellant primarily argues that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to direct the personal representative to distribute the decedent’s Georgia real estate.

We agree and reverse that portion of the order on appeal. See Polkowski v. Polkowski, 854 So.2d 286, 286 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003) (“Like lines in the sand, state boundaries determine a court’s jurisdiction over real property,” and thus the court lacked in rem jurisdiction to order the partition and sale of foreign property); Pawlik v. Pawlik, 545 So.2d 506, 507 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989) (“In no event could the [circuit] court effect a partition of lands outside this state.”) (citation omitted); In re Roberg’s Estate, 396 So.2d 235, 235–36 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981) (“When a testator executes a will devising lands in two or more states, the courts in each state construe it as to the lands located therein as if devised by separate wills.”) (citations omitted).

Stay tuned for more!

In a subsequent post I’ll write about two recent cases turning on whether a probate judge had personal jurisdiction over certain parties. Read these four cases together and you’ll have a good idea of how these esoteric-sounding concepts play themselves out in the very real rough and tumble world of trusts and estates litigation.