Can You Pursue Estate Litigation Outside of Probate in Florida?
As a general rule in Florida, legal disputes over a deceased individual’s probate estate must be resolved as part of the probate proceeding itself. Put in different terms, if you had an adequate opportunity to litigate a probate dispute during the original administration of the estate, you cannot later try and file a separate lawsuit challenging the outcome.
The Florida Supreme Court directly addressed this issue in a 1981 decision, DeWitt v. Duce. That case involved a will contest. Two challengers petitioned the probate court to revoke the will. They later decided to dismiss their petition before trial, only to file a lawsuit two-and-a-half years later in federal court, alleging they were wrongfully deprived of their inheritance. The Supreme Court said that under these circumstances, the challengers were not entitled to a second bite at the apple, since they could have continued to pursue their original will contest during probate.
Granddaughter Alleges She Was Fraudulently Deprived of Grandmother’s Bank Accounts
More recently, though, the Florida Sixth District Court of Appeal clarified that the DeWitt decision should not be read too “broadly.” The case before the Sixth District, Royal v. Royal, involves a woman (the plaintiff) who has alleged that two of her relatives conspired to deprive her of property that belonged to her deceased grandmother. According to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, her grandmother died in September 2020. At the time, the grandmother owned several credit union accounts with a combined balance of nearly $670,000. The plaintiff was named as the “pay on death” beneficiary of the accounts, meaning that under normal circumstances she would receive those funds outside of probate.
In this case, however, the plaintiff said that two weeks after her grandmother died, the two defendants told her that the grandmother “intended for these funds to be distributed through her estate.” The plaintiff said she took this claim at face value and told the credit union to distribute the funds to the defendants. Later, the plaintiff said she discovered that there was nothing in her grandmother’s will or trust leaving any money or property to the defendants. The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendants, alleging fraud and negligent misrepresentation, and sought return of the money.
The circuit court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The trial judge believed that under DeWitt, the plaintiff had to pursue her claims through her grandmother’s probate proceeding, which was still pending, and not through a separate civil lawsuit. The Sixth District reversed the dismissal, however, explaining that DeWitt was inapplicable to these allegations. DeWitt involved both allegations of interference with an inheritance and a contest of the underlying will. The plaintiff in this case has done neither. Indeed, her lawsuit alleges she was deprived of property that passed to her completely outside of probate. As such, she was not required by DeWitt to pursue her grievances in probate court.
Contact Florida Beneficiary Disputes Lawyer Mark R. Manceri Today
If you are involved in a beneficiary dispute involving the distribution of any estate or trust property, it is critical that you seek out legal advice from a qualified practitioner. Pompano Beach trust and estate litigation attorney Mark R. Manceri can review your case and advise you of your options. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.