Under Florida Law Creditors Have a Right to Fully Litigate Their Claims in Independent Actions Against Estates

Simpson v. Estate of Simpson, __ So.2d __ (Fla. 5th DCA Feb 17, 2006)

In this case the personal representative of the estate knew that her nephew was claiming he was entitled to an ownership stake in a citrus business owned by the decedent. Nephew never received the notice-to-creditors mandated by F.S. § 733.701. Nephew filed a petition under F.S. § 733.702(3) seeking an extension of time to file his claim against the estate based on the estate's failure to provide the statutorily required creditors' notice.

The evidentiary hearing on Nephew's petition for extension of time did not end well for him. Unfortunately Lake County Probate Judge Mark J. Hill failed to distinguish between (1) a proceeding to determine Nephew's entitlement to an extension of time vs. (2) a proceeding to determine the validity of his claims. According to the Fifth DCA, the undisputed evidence presented at the hearing established that Nephew was a "reasonably ascertainable" creditor who was not given notice, and thus entitled to an extension of time to file his claim against the estate.

The undisputed evidence establishes that Mark's claim was not only reasonably ascertainable, it was known to Anita. Robert testified that shortly after Jim died, Anita said to him, "We've got to make sure Mark gets his stock." However, after Mark turned 21 on September 17, Anita changed her position, stating, "I can't do anything to get the stock to Mark for his 21st birthday because it's all tied up in the probate court, and we can't touch it." Then, on October 2, 2001, Robert wrote a letter to Anita asking her to give Mark the 10.5 shares of stock. Clearly, Anita had actual knowledge of Mark's potential claim.

Once the evidence established that Nephew was entitled to file his claim, the probate court should have stopped there and let the parties fully litigate Nephew's claim in a separate independent action. That's not what the probate court did. Which was reversible error according to the Fifth DCA:

Instead of ending its inquiry there, the probate court proceeded to determine the validity of Mark's claim. Under the applicable probate statutes, the merits of Mark's claim should have been determined in an independent action. In disputes over the validity of timely filed claims, section 733.705(4) requires the claimant to "bring an independent action upon the claim" if an objection to the claim is served. Section 733.705(5) contemplates the use of an independent action after the probate court permits the filing of an untimely claim. It states, "A claimant may bring an independent action or declaratory action upon a claim which was not timely filed pursuant to s. 733.702(1) only if the claimant has been granted an extension of time to file the claim pursuant to s. 733.702(3)." The term "independent action" requires the filing of a separate action upon a claim against the estate. In re Pridgeon's Estate, 349 So.2d 741 (Fla. 1st DCA 1977). This requirement allows pleadings and responses sufficient to set the issues before the court prior to hearing. In re Fornash's Estate, 372 So.2d 128, 129 (Fla. 2d DCA 1979).
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