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Alabama Supreme Court: Alabama Circuit Court Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction Over Claims Against Georgia Executor

The Alabama Supreme Court, in Ex Parte Nancy T. Beamon, addressed the issue of subject matter jurisdiction in an Alabama court over an executor of an estate pending in another state.  The Alabama Supreme Court determined that an Alabama circuit court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over claims against a Georgia executor.

The Facts of Ex parte Nancy T. Beamon

Donovan Arnott, Jr. was married to Lois Arnott.  Bruce is their son.  Lois had two children from a prior marriage – Nancy Beamon and John Terry.  Donovan adopted Nancy, but did not adopt John.

Donovan died testate on May 1, 2014, owning a house, lots,  and several tracts of land. Donavan’s will left the house and two lots in Clarke County, Alabama to his surviving spouse Lois. Donovan’s will stated:

“I, give, devise, and bequeath to my beloved wife, LOIS P. ARNOTT, if she shall survive me, a life estate in and to all of my other real estate, together with the right to cut any and all timber located thereon as needed as long as the cutting practice is in accordance with the acceptable forestry practice with provisions made for timber regeneration in accordance with acceptable forestry practices.”

Donovan devised a remainder fee-simple interest in the “Atchison” tract to Bruce; a reminder fee-simple interest in the “Smith” tract to Nancy; and a remainder fee-simple interest in the “Taylor” tract to John.

Lois died testate in July 2017, and her estate was probated in Lee County, Georgia.  Nancy was appointed as executor of Nancy’s estate.

In October 2018, Bruce filed a complaint against Nancy, as personal representative of Lois’s estate, in Washington County, Alabama.  The complaint alleged that Nancy, as personal representative, was responsible for carrying out the timber regeneration of the Atchison Tract, and that the estate was required to pay for the cost of the timber regeneration on the tract.

Nancy moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the circuit court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims.

What Is Subject Matter Jurisdiction Under Alabama Law?

Subject-matter jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear a given class of cases.  Here, the issue was whether the Alabama court had subject matter jurisdiction over a case against a Georgia executor concerning a breach of the executor’s duties.

Can An Executor of An Estate Prosecute Or Defend Suits In Another State?

The Alabama Supreme Court cited heavily from an 1897 opinion to make the point that an executor appointed in another state does not have the authority to prosecute or defend suits in Alabama:

“It seems to be settled by the weight, if not by an unbroken concurrence, of judicial authority, that a judgment rendered in a foreign jurisdiction against a domiciliary personal representative is void, whether objection is or is not made to the exercise of jurisdiction by the foreign court, and whether the judgment is against the same or a different representative.

The accepted theory of administration is that the right and liability is purely representative, and exists only by force of the official character, and so cannot pass beyond the jurisdiction which grants it, and reserves to itself full and exclusive authority over all the assets of the estate within its limits….

 

When persons are sued in their capacity as executor of an estate, they are not personally a party, but are only involved as a “commissioned representative of the court making the appointment, and for the limits of its jurisdiction, so that beyond that jurisdiction he can exercise no authority, or do or omit any act which will affect the due administration of the trust by the local authorities.”

 

“The objection thus goes to the power or jurisdiction of the court over the subject-matter of the administration of assets in a foreign State, in the control of foreign administrators, and to the capacity of the defendant to do any act to the prejudice of the domestic administration. Consent cannot give such jurisdiction, or extend the limited authority of the administration to extra-territorial acts resulting in judgments against the assets of the estate. The domestic representative has no authority to prosecute or defend suits in foreign jurisdictions, except by the permission and authority of the particular state, and only as to assets there located. In Hatchett v. Berney, supra, we announced the general rule as follows: ‘It is the settled doctrine of this court, and of the common [*19]  law, that letters testamentary, or of administration, have no extra-territorial operation, and title derived from them extends, as matter of right, only to the personal assets which are found within the jurisdiction of the government from which they are derived.’ And it follows from this, an administrator, or executor, is not suable in a foreign jurisdiction — as he has no commission beyond the State line.

 

In this case, Lois’s will was probated in Georgia.  Nancy was appointed executor of the estate by the Georgia court.  No ancillary administration had been opened in Alabama probate court.

Bruce’s complaint clearly placed the obligation to reforest the Atchison tract on Lois’s estate, not Nancy personally.

The Alabama Supreme Court determined that it was clear that Bruce’s claim was a claim against Lois’s estate.  Nancy, in her capacity as executor Lois’s estate, had no authority to defend a suit in Alabama, because the letters testamentary appointing her as executor were issued by the Georgia court.

Therefore, the Alabama circuit court had no subject-matter jurisdiction over claims against Nancy in her capacity as the executor of Lois’s estate, and the claims against her should have been dismissed.