2nd Circuit Re-Examines Standard for "Probate Exception" to Federal Court Jurisdiction

Many predicted that Anna Nicole Smith's 2006 Supreme Court victory involving her late husband's estate would lead to increased numbers of trust-and-estate cases being litigated in federal court (see here and here).

A recent example of the "federalizing" of trust-and-estates litigation is reported on in 2nd Circuit Re-Examines Standard for Probate Exception.  As the following excerpts make clear, it will now be much easier for litigants in the North East (i.e., litigants within the 2nd Circuit's jurisdictional boundaries) to adjudicate trusts-and-estates disputes in federal court:

 A retired attorney's long-running fight with the Bank of New York and a White Plains, N.Y., law firm over her parents' estate gave a federal appeals court the chance to explore the new standard on the probate exception to federal diversity jurisdiction.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision changed the scope of the exception and the circuit's own case law, with the result that some of the claims brought by Adrienne Marsh Lefkowitz against the bank and McCarthy, Fingar, Donovan, Drazen & Smith can stay in federal court.

Second Circuit Judges John Walker and Peter Hall, with Southern District of New York Judge Denise Cote, sitting by designation, decided Lefkowitz v. The Bank of New York, 04-0435-cv. Hall wrote for the panel.

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[I]n 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Marshall v. Marshall, 126 S.Ct. 1735. In that case, former Playboy playmate and TV reality show star Anna Nicole Smith won a procedural victory in her attempt to collect a bequest from her late 90-year-old husband, Texas oil magnate J. Howard Marshall.

Hall, in writing the 2nd Circuit's opinion, said Marshall "reigned in the boundaries of the probate exception."

"The court explained that in Marshall the probate exception did not apply because plaintiff sought neither to (1) 'administ[er] an estate, ... probate ... a will, or [do] any other purely probate matter,' nor (2) 'to reach a res in the custody of a state court,'" Hall said. "From these statements, we discern that under the clarified probate exception a federal court should decline subject-matter jurisdiction only if a plaintiff seeks to achieve either of these in federal court."

Hall said that, therefore, "insofar as our Court's decision in Moser purported to direct courts to exercise subject-matter jurisdiction over in personam and other claims that might 'interfere' with probate proceedings only ... that holding was overly broad and has now been superseded by Marshall's limitation of the exception."

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