Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mathis v. Estate of Mathis

Mathis v. Estate of Mathis, --- So.2d --- (Fla. 3d DCA 2015), No. 3D14-2332

This case deals with the ability of a beneficiary to seek further administration of an estate pursuant to Florida Probate Rule 5.460.  The decedent executed a last will leaving her homestead property to her daughter.  The will also provided that if the property was sold for whatever reason, the proceeds from the sale would be divided and distributed among her daughter, her son, and her other children and grandchildren.

For ten years following the decedent's death, the son continued to live at the property. When a tax deed sale was imminent, the daughter filed a petition for administration and sought the appointment of a curator.  The son paid the outstanding property taxes to avoid the tax deed sale.  The curator filed a petition to determine homestead status and the trial court admitted the will to probate.  Once the trial court entered the order determining homestead status, the curator was discharged.  The daughter then sold the property, and the new owners attempted to evict the son.  The son filed a petition seeking subsequent administration, alleging that because his sister had sold the property, he was entitled to his percentage of the proceeds, as well as reimbursement for the property taxes he had paid.  The trial court denied his petition.

The Court reversed and held that pursuant to Florida Probate Rule 5.460(a), the son was entitled to seek subsequent administration of the estate to determine his interest in the estate and to effectuate the provision in the will entitling him to a percentage of the sale proceeds.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In re Estate of Murphy

In Re Estate of Murphy, 184 So.3d 1221 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016)

For anyone looking for a refresher on the doctrine of dependent relative revocation, this decision is a good read.  In this case, after 9 years of litigation, the Court ultimately determined that the probate court's failure to apply the doctrine of dependent relative revocation incorrectly resulted in the distribution of an estate worth $12 million to the decedent's intestate heirs rather than to the beneficiary of one of her prior wills.

The decedent had executed a series of wills prior to her death.  Each of those wills, while slightly varied, left a bequest to the Northwestern University (Go Wildcats!!) medical school, to the decedent's second cousin, to her attorney, to her attorney's assistant, and to her accountant. The decedent's second cousin challenged the decedent's last will (which divided her residuary among the attorney, assistant and accountant, and not her), alleging undue influence on the part of the decedent's lawyer and his assistant.  The probate court ruled that the lawyer and his assistant exerted undue influence on the decedent, and thus the residuary devises to them contained in the last will were void.  However, the probate court also ruled that the remainder of the provisions of the will were valid and would control the disposition of the remaining assets of the estate, and thus held that the residue of the estate passed by intestacy because the final will's revocation clause, revoking all prior wills, remained valid.

On appeal, the Court considered whether the probate court should have effectuated a prior residuary clause in favor of the cousin under the doctrine of dependent relative revocation.  The doctrine of dependent relative revocation, as adopted by the Florida Supreme Court, means that where a "testator makes a new will revoking a former valid one, and it later appears that the new one is invalid, the old will may be re-established on the ground that the revocation was dependent on the validity of the new one, [the] testator preferring the old will to intestacy." Stewart v. Johnson, 194 So.2d 869, 870 (Fla. 1940).  

The presumption of dependent relative revocation arises where there is a showing of similarity between a decedent's testamentary instruments.  This similarity is construed broadly, and does not mean that the specific beneficiaries have to be the same.  The fact that certain people are consistently not beneficiaries of the decedent's testamentary documents can be enough.  The probate court may consider any admissible extrinsic evidence when measuring similarity for purposes of the doctrine's application.  Once the doctrine's presumption arises, pursuant to F.S. 90.302(2) and 733.107(2), the burden of proof then shifts to the opponent of the presumption to show that the testator held an independent, unaffected intention to revoke the otherwise affected will.

The Court held that because the party opposing the presumption could not prove that the last will's revocation clause was untainted by the same undue influence that infected its residuary clause and that the decedent had an independent intention to revoke all prior wills at the time she executed the last will so that the bulk of her estate would pass by intestacy, the revocation clause of the last will was also invalid.  Because the decedent's prior documents were deemed to be "sufficiently similar," and because the decedent seemed to prefer testacy over intestacy, the Court held that the residuary clause in a prior will leaving the decedent's estate to the cousin should have been honored rather than distributing the residuary through intestacy.  

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Legal Aid of Palm Beach County v. Guardianship of Jaffe

Legal Aid Soc'y of Palm Beach Cnty., Inc. v. Guardianship of Jaffe, 178 So.3d 527 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015)

This case involves a dispute under Florida's Public Guardianship law following a trial court's order allowing one guardian to withdraw and appointing Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc. ("Legal Aid") in its place.  

This situation was created by an apparently difficult ward who had at least six court-appointed guardians, the most recent being Ferd and Gladys Alpert Jewish Family & Children's Service of Palm Beach County, Inc. ("AJFCS").  Unable to control the ward, AJFCS sought to withdraw as guardian and suggested that the Statewide Public Guardian be appointed its place.  It did not put the Statewide Public Guardian or Legal Aid (the local public guardian) on notice, as required by Florida Probate Rule 5.560(c).  The probate court approved of AJFCS's resignation and appointed Legal Aid as the successor guardian.  

Legal Aid immediately sought a rehearing, asserting that it could not accept the appointment because if it took another ward it would exceed the statutory ratio of staff-to-wards provided in F.S. 744.708(7).  The probate court granted the rehearing, and to remedy the over-capacity concern, it ordered AJFCS to "swap" with Legal Aid, and take over as guardian of a ward of Legal Aid.  

On appeal, the Court held that the trial court had no authority to appoint Legal Aid as guardian of the ward.  It reviewed the history of Florida's Public Guardianship law and the statutes governing public guardianship offices throughout the state. It found that F.S. 744.708(7) does not allow a trial court to compel the public guardian to exceed the statutorily imposed ratio.  Nor can a trial court appoint the public guardian without notice to the public guardian under Florida Probate Rule 5.560.

The Court was concerned with the trial court's proposal to "swap" the wards to allow Legal Aid to remain within its ratio of staff-to-wards.  The Court disagreed that swapping was a solution to the issue, because wards are not fungible - every ward has a guardianship plan, public guardians must personally visit their wards quarterly to develop some rapport with the ward, and a guardian is only able to withdraw if the court is assured that the ward's interest will not be placed in jeopardy.  The Court recognized that the trial court was in a difficult position, and suggested that if the ward was truly a danger to herself, the court could have approved an involuntary hospitalization or placement, or could have requested the involvement of the Statewide Public Guardianship Office and the chief judge to review the capacity of the public guardian in Palm Beach County.