March 6, 2012
Authored by: Luke Lantta
Probate courts are courts of limited jurisdiction in Georgia, so they can’t hear every possible claim remotely relating to an estate dispute. For example, in Georgia, they lack certain equitable powers that are held solely by the superior courts. Nevertheless, if you find yourself in a probate court, you best raise every issue you have regarding the subject estate or you may end up losing that claim. Likewise, it’s worth giving the underlying set of facts giving rise to your claim a thorough analysis to ensure that you’re raising all possible claims that could arise from that set of facts.
In Crowe v. Elder, the Georgia Supreme Court considered a decedent’s daughter’s breach of contract claim allegedly arising from the decedent’s widow’s failure to honor an alleged agreement regarding the distribution of the intestate decedent’s estate. The Supreme Court determined that the breach of contract claim was barred on the grounds of res judicata insofar as an identity of causes of action existed between the daughter’s previously (adversely) adjudicated fraud claim and her breach of contract claim. Tying this back into our original point about raising all possible claims in the probate court – the Georgia Supreme Court determined that res judicata applied even if the probate court lacked authority over the fraud or contract claims. Let’s see why.
When Walter E. Elder, III died intestate he left an estate valued at approximately $3 million. His widow, Eva Smith Elder, petitioned the probate court for a year’s support of $3 million. The decedent’s only child, Susan Elder Crowe, didn’t object to the petition for year’s support, and a year’s support was granted for the entire estate sum.
Crowe later sued Elder in probate court alleging that Elder fraudulently induced Crowe to consent to the requested year’s support by promising that, after it was granted, the estate would be divided up equally between Elder, Crowe, and Crowe’s sons, but Elder failed to honor that agreement. The probate court dismissed this claim on the grounds that it lacked equity jurisdiction to set aside the award of year’s support. Crowe appealed the dismissal to the superior court, and the superior court dismissed the claim.
While Crowe was appealing the dismissal of her fraud claim, she filed in superior court a complaint for breach of contract for Elder’s alleged failure to honor the alleged agreement. The superior court dismissed the claim on the grounds that res judicata barred the breach of contract claim. The Georgia Court of Appeals and Georgia Supreme Court agreed.
There was an identity of parties between the two actions, so that element of res judicata was undisputed.
There was also an identity of causes of action insofar as the two claims were based on the same alleged set of facts: Elder’s alleged misconduct regarding an alleged agreement to divide up the decedent’s estate. Recasting the same alleged conduct as breach of contract instead of fraud does not constitute a new or different cause of action.
There was also a prior adjudication on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction. A probate court’s jurisdiction may encompass adjudicating claims for fraud and breach of contract related to the distribution of a decedent’s estate by one in a position to do so. But, even assuming that either Crowe’s fraud claim or breach of contract or both were outside the authority of the probate court, Crowe chose the forum by filing suit, and therefore, was bound by its limitations and not immune from the subsequent application of res judicata to a later attempt to revive a cause of action based on the same set of facts.
As the Supreme Court noted, Crowe could have originally brought both her fraud and breach of contract claims in superior court. She chose the probate court as her forum and could not later claim that it could not adjudicate the claims she raised there.