Probate courts in Florida are courts of “equity,” meaning that the probate judge hears evidence and makes rulings without a jury, trying to reach the right outcome for the interested persons in the probate case. Because there are no juries and the probate judge makes all the decisions, the line between admissible evidence, argument of counsel and the use of “evidence” that is never actually admitted into evidence is often blurry.
A recent appellate decision in probate illustrates this common issue. In Estate_of_Vazza, 2014 (4th DCA 2014), two former personal representatives of the estate were ordered by the probate court to reimburse the estate for allegedly improperly distributed funds. Although the appellate decision is not clear as to what took place in the probate court, there was no evidentiary hearing. As is often the case in probate court, the lawyers probably made legal arguments and argued what the facts were, without actually admitted any evidence into the record as evidence.
The appellate court applied regular rules of evidence and procedure and ruled as follows:
Despite the disputed allegations regarding whether the Vazzas acted properly under Florida law and within their statutory power, the trial court entered its order requiring return of specific funds without holding an evidentiary hearing. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the case back to the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing. See In re Estate of Winston, 610 So. 2d 1323, 1325 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992) (citing § 733.6175, Fla. Stat. (1991)) (“[T]he Florida probate court has exclusive jurisdiction and is obligated to review estate fees upon the petition of a proper party.”)).
The lesson is that for strongly contested matters in the probate court, there are no shortcuts to having an evidentiary hearing, offering documents and witness testimony into evidence, and having the probate court make evidentiary findings of fact. Anything less risks having the probate court’s decision overruled on appeal, greatly increasing the cost of the endeavor and lengthening the proceedings by at least a year.