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Do you have to name the Personal Representative as the Plaintiff or Defendant in a non-probate case, or can you just name the estate?

In Syfrett v. Syfrett-Moore,  (1st DCA 2013), the “Estate” of the deceased filed a complaint in the civil division of the circuit court, seeking a declaration that the Estate, as opposed to a previous record owner, was the owner of real property.  The claim was made that a prior transfer of the real estate was invalid without any explanation as to why. 

The trial court granted the plaintiff summary judgment, voiding the deed in question, and denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.  The appellate court reversed the entry of summary judgment and directed dismissal of the complaint on the following grounds:

  • The complaint need not meet the required pleading standard because the complaint did not articulate any grounds explaining the Estate’s bona fide, actual, present need for a declaration as to the owner of the real estate in question, which had been sold years prior in a tax sale.  Only at oral argument was it claimed that the Estate had a need to determine the ownership of the property so it could claim the excess proceeds from the tax sale of the real estate. 
  • The complaint designated the Estate as the plaintiff, not the co-personal representatives.  Section 733.612(20) requires that the personal representative, not the “estate,” has the legal authority to prosecute or defend for the estate.
  • The complaint failed to give any reason why the deed in question was not valid.  At oral argument that claim was made that the deed was invalid as a result of incapacity, but the complaint was deficient because it failed to include sufficient allegations to overcome the presumption of the validity of a deed and the sanity of the grantor when executing the deed.
  • None of the deed or other documents referenced in the complaint were attached to the complaint, violating the requirements of Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.130(a). 

The court remanded the matter, instructing the parties and the trial court that, if the decedent’s probate case is still open, the probate court may elect to consider the complaint in an adversary proceeding as part of the probate case, pursuant to Florida Probate Rule 5.025(c). 

This piece of gratuitous advice from the appellate court is well taken.  It is not uncommon for estates to be involved in litigation, and oftentimes the litigation is not appropriate to take place in the probate court.  For example, when a creditor’s claim is objected to by the estate, the creditor must file an independent action in civil court, not in the probate court.  Likewise, sometimes the estate is involved in litigation, such as pursuing a wrongful death claim, that would be not heard in the probate court.  

The type of lawsuit in question here – really a lawsuit to determine the estate’s ownership in property – seems appropriate to be heard in either probate court or in regular civil court.  I have seen them take place in both places.  As a matter of judicial economy, the appellate court is strongly suggesting that this type of case be dealt with in probate court, which makes a lot of sense, especially if no jury trial can be had. Probate courts do lots of bench trials, so if you are faced with a bench trial in the independent action, why not keep the matter in probate court to simplify the estate administration. 

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