Florida Appellate Court: Caveat In Probate Proceeding Did Not Constitute a Counterclaim To Survive Voluntary Dismissal

In Tien v. Estate of Tien, a November 17, 2021 opinion from the Florida Third District Court of Appeal, the Court reviewed whether a caveat and answer asserting invalidity of the will based upon lack of testamentary capacity, fraud, and undue influence prohibited the probate petitioner from filing a notice of voluntary dismissal dismissing the petition for administration.

The Facts Of Tien v. Estate of Tien

Yife Tien initiated a Florida probate proceeding to administer the estate of his late father.  Henry, Yife’s brother, responded to Yife’s petition for administration by filing a caveat and an answer.  In the caveat and answer, Henry asserted that his father lacked testamentary capacity to make the last version of his will and codicil, and that both documents were procured through fraud and undue influence.  Henry did not plead any independent causes of action.  Instead, in the wherefore clause of his answer, Henry demanded an accounting and a deposit of assets into the court registry.

After Henry filed his caveat and answer in the Florida probate proceeding, Yife filed a notice of voluntary dismissal of his petition for administration.  The following day, the Florida probate court rendered a final order of dismissal.  Henry unsuccessfully sought relief from the dismissal.

Can a Petition For Administration Be Voluntarily Dismissed?

Yes, a petition for administration can be voluntarily dismissed under Florida law.  Voluntary dismissals are governed by Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.420. Under the rule, a plaintiff is authorized once to voluntarily dismiss a case by serving “a notice of dismissal at any time before a hearing on motion for summary judgment, or if none is served or if the motion is denied, before retirement of the jury in a case tried before a jury or before submission of a nonjury case to the court.” Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.420(a)(1).  The rules governing a voluntary dismissal apply in Florida probate court.

A Florida Voluntary Dismissal Cannot Serve To Prejudice a Pending Counterclaim

Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.420(a)(2) makes clear that a voluntary dismissal cannot serve to prejudice a pending counterclaim, stating:

If a counterclaim has been served by a defendant prior to the service upon the defendant of the plaintiff’s notice of dismissal, the action shall not be dismissed against defendant’s objections unless the counterclaim can remain pending for independent adjudication by the court.

Does a Caveat In a Florida Probate Proceeding Prevent Voluntary Dismissal Of a Petition For Administration?

No.  Where an interested person other than a creditor files a caveat and challenges the decedent’s will, “the probate court [is] obliged to make a determination on [the] challenge to the will prior to appointing a personal representative and admitting the will to probate.” In re Est. of Hartman, 836 So. 2d 1038, 1039 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002).  Read The Rights of Caveators Must Be Determined Before Admitting Will To Probate.  Hence, a caveat effectively precludes the admission of the will to probate until the filing party has the opportunity to litigate his or her challenge.  The caveat in this case did not prevent the dismissal of the petition for administration, because there was no independent cause of action such as a counterclaim raised.  The Court stated:

In the instant case, neither the caveat nor the answer referenced a counterclaim. Moreover, both submissions were devoid of the essential elements of any cognizable cause of action. Under these circumstances, Yife was authorized to abandon his effort to admit the disputed will and codicil to probate, and “[t]he trial court ha[d] no authority or discretion to deny the voluntary dismissal.” Pino, 121 So. 3d at 31. Because “[t]he dismissal [was] effective upon service,” any further litigation over the validity of the will was improper. Id. Accordingly, we discern no error and affirm.

Here, Henry raised assertions regarding the validity of the will and codicil in his caveat and answer.  When Yife dismissed the petition for administration seeking to admit the will and codicil, Yife was no longer seeking the admission of these documents to probate, which should have come as some relief to Henry, who did not want the documents admitted.

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