Monday, August 10, 2015

Goldman v. Estate of Goldman

Goldman v. Estate of Goldman, --- So.3d --- (Fla. 3d DCA 2015)

This decision deals with an award of attorney's fees and costs against a party without a finding of bad faith by the trial court.  An attorney, in her capacity as Guardian Ad Litem, inadvertently disclosed confidential financial and medical information of the ward to the ward's nieces and nephews.  The trial court held a hearing regarding sanctions against the nieces and nephews, and found that the file had been sent inadvertently and not in bad faith, but still imposed sanctions against them for obtaining the confidential information in violation of the court's confidentiality order.

The nephews and nieces appealed because the trial court did not make an express finding of bad faith conduct.  The Court agreed with the nephews and nieces that such a finding was necessary.  It cited the Moakley v. Smallwood decision, which held that the trial court has the inherent authority to impose fees against an attorney for bad faith conduct, but that the sanction must be based on an express finding of bad faith conduct and must be supported by detailed factual findings.  Moakley v. Smallwood, 826 So.2d 221, 226 (Fla. 2002).  The Court found that this requirement had been expanded to situations involving fees against a litigant as well as an attorney, and thus the trial court's failure to make specific findings regarding bad faith conduct as to each party or attorney against sanctions are to be imposed required reversal.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Fiel v. Hoffman

Fiel v. Hoffman, 169 So.3d 1274 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015), 2015 WL 4549604

This case involved the effect of the Slayer Statute and undue influence on a murdered decedent's will.  The decedent was murdered by his wife, who also murdered the decedent's mother, to ensure that she and her family would receive the decedent's estate on his death.  The decedent's will provided that if the decedent's mother did not survive him, his estate would go to his wife.  If neither the mother or wife survived him, his estate would go to his wife's daughter by another marriage and her children.

The trial court held that the wife was not entitled to participate in the estate based on F.S. 732.802 (the "Slayer Statute"), and that the statute required the court to treat her as having predeceased her husband, leaving her daughter and her daughter's children, and not the decedent's intestate heirs, as the beneficiaries of the estate. But the trial court also held that the decedent's intestate heirs have a cause of action for undue influence in the execution of the decedent's wills leaving everything to his wife and her family.  Both issues were raised on appeal.

The Court first addressed the Slayer Statute issue.  The decedent's cousins argued that the Slayer Statute should be interpreted to also bar the daughter and her children from inheriting.  The Court found that the Slayer Statute is clear and ambiguous and disinherits only the slayer or anyone who participates in the killing of the decedent from any rights to the victim's estate.  The Court refused to extend the prohibition on inheritance to the heirs of the slayer.

The Court then held that the decedent's intestate heirs were able to state a cause of action for undue influence, even though the "undue influencer" was the wife, and not her family, because they alleged that the entire will was tainted by the wife and the bequests in favor of her family could not be severed from the rest of the will.  The Court cited to the distinction between circumstances where only a portion of the will was procured by undue influence and circumstances where it appeared the entire instrument was the result of undue influence.  It held that the intestate heirs' allegations that the contested wills were entirely tainted and that the wife's actions were undertaken not only to benefit herself but also her family were enough to state a cause of action for undue influence as to the entire will. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

In re Estate of Maldonado

In re Estate of Maldonado, --- So.3d --- (Fla. 5th DCA 2015)

In this case, the former spouse of a decedent appealed an order directing the personal representative to distribute the estate's assets and close the estate.  The decedent and his ex-wife divorced in 1993 in Puerto Rico, but the Puerto Rico order dissolving the marriage did not distribute the spouses' marital assets.  When the decedent died in 2005, his son sought to probate his will in Florida.  At the same time, the ex-wife filed suit in Puerto Rico seeking an award of marital assets.  She ultimately received a judgment for one-half of the marital assets.  

In 2006, the ex-wife filed a motion to intervene in the probate proceedings and an affidavit explaining the Puerto Rico judgment and her claim against the estate.  In 2007, she again filed a renewed motion to intervene and statement of claim.  The decedent's son objected to the claim as untimely, and in 2010 the court entered an order striking the 2007 claim.  The personal representative then sought to close the estate and the ex-wife's counsel made no objection to the personal representative's request that the estate be distributed.  The court directed the personal representative to distribute the assets and close the estate.

The ex-wife then sought to appeal the closing of the estate, claiming that her 2006 claim was still pending.  The Court held that this argument was not preserved on appeal because she did not object to the personal representative's request  to distribute the assets and close the estate.  She also argued that the court reversibly erred in striking her 2007 statement of claim.  The Court rejected this argument, because she did not appeal the 2010 order striking her claim in a timely matter.