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Does A Judge Have To Give Reasons For Their Ruling In Probate Litigation?


When people typically think of litigation, they think of a jury trial. But in practice, most probate litigation does not involve a jury at all. Indeed, if we are talking about something like a will contest, there is no right to a jury trial in the first place. These disputes are heard and disposed of by a judge.

To expedite matters, judges may use a procedure known as summary judgment. Either party in a dispute can move for summary judgment. Basically, this means that there are no disputed facts in the case, so the judge can simply proceed to decide the legal questions involved without the need for a full trial.

Judge Failed to Explain Decision Declaring Will Invalid

The Florida Supreme Court recently amended the rules governing summary judgment. These amendments have already affected at least one probate case, Jones v. Ervolino, where the Florida Third District Court of Appeal held summary judgment was improper. The key issue here was that the trial judge failed to explain his decision.

The case itself involves a dispute over the validity of a will. A man with the last name Scheffler died. After his death, another man named Jones filed a petition to probate a will purportedly executed by Scheffler and naming Jones as the sole beneficiary. Scheffler’s niece, a woman named Ervolino, then filed her own petition to administer her uncle’s estate. She claimed Scheffler died without leaving a valid will. More precisely, she alleged the will offered by Scheffler was not properly witnessed, as required by Florida law.

The trial judge granted Ervolino’s motion for summary judgment, holding the will was invalid as a matter of law. Since there was no valid will, the court proceeded to administer Scheffler’s estate as intestate and named Ervolino as personal representative. The judge did not offer any further explanation for his decision.

Jones appealed. The Third District agreed with Jones that the judge’s failure to explain his ruling violated the recently amended Florida rules governing summary judgments. Specifically, the new rule states, “The court shall state on the record the reasons for granting or denying the motion.” The prior rule, which was modeled on federal civil procedure, only said the court “should” state its reasons on the record. But the use of “shall” meant this was now a mandatory duty, the Third District said. While the judge was not required to write a “lengthy” opinion, it was insufficient to simply grant the motion without giving some reasons in writing. The Third District therefore returned the case to the trial court with instructions to issue a new order.

Speak with a Florida Will Contest Lawyer Today

Will contests often require an understanding of complex legal procedures. An experienced Pompano Beach estate and trust litigation attorney can provide you with valuable guidance and representation. Contact the offices of Mark R. Manceri, P.A., today to schedule a consultation.



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