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Federal Judge Finds Estates Of Cuban Refugees May Not Pursue Lawsuit Against Alleged “Trafficker” In Stolen Property


When a Florida resident dies, their individual property immediately becomes part of their probate estate. Florida courts have referred to this as the “twinkling of the legal eye.” In practical terms, this means that at the moment of death, the decedent is no longer the legal owner of the property that now belongs to their estate.

While all of this might sound like a technicality, it can have significant real-world implications. Take this recent decision from a federal judge in Miami, De Fernandez v. Seabord Marine, Ltd. This case turned on when numerous estates purported to acquire legal ownership of legal claims held by their respective decedents.

Here is a brief explanation of what happened. After Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, the new Communist government confiscated a large amount of private property without compensating the owners. This included the 1960 seizure of businesses owned by four siblings–known as the Blanco Rosell siblings–who held the development and concession rights for the port of Mariel Bay. The four siblings subsequently fled to the United States and became American citizens.

In 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, which extended existing U.S. sanctions against the Castro regime. As relevant here, Title III of the Act permitted a U.S. national who acquired an interest in confiscated Cuban property prior to March 12, 1996, to file a civil lawsuit in American courts against anyone else who allegedly “trafficked” or benefited from said stolen property.

Title III also authorized the President to suspend this right to sue. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all exercised this authority, meaning claimants could not sue alleged traffickers. But in 2019, the Trump administration said it would “no longer suspend Title III.” Consequently, in 2020 the estates of the four siblings–all of whom had died after 1996–filed suit in Florida against a company accused of trafficking in their stolen Mariel Bay property rights.

Unfortunately for the estates, the judge dismissed the case. The problem, the court explained, was that under the precise language of Title III, the “United States national who acquired ownership of the claim must be the same United States national who brings the Title III action.” And that claim had to be acquired before March 12, 1996. But here, the claims were not brought by the original siblings but by their estates, none of whom “acquired” the claim from their respective decedents until after the March 1996 deadline.

In other words, when each sibling died after 1996, they no longer retained ownership of their potential Title III claim. In the proverbial twinkling of an eye, those claims passed to their estates. But as far as Title III was concerned, the judge said the estates could no longer assert these claims.

Speak with a Florida Probate Litigation Lawyer Today

Personal representatives often find themselves embroiled in a number of legal issues surrounding their administration of an estate. If you need legal advice from an experienced Pompano Beach estate and trust litigation attorney, contact Mark R. Manceri, P.A., today to schedule a consultation.


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