No procedural or jurisdictional issues in Georgia fiduciary litigation can cause as much headache as the sometimes exclusive and sometimes concurrent jurisdiction of the superior and probate courts.  The Georgia Court of Appeals’ recent decisions in Rentz v. Rentz and Rentz Family Farms v. Rentz put a spotlight on these procedural and jurisdictional tensions.  The cases involved the distribution of real property held by an estate, a probate court’s order to liquidate that real property despite a current lease on certain parcels, and an attempt to have a superior court weigh in on the propriety of the probate court’s actions while the probate court proceedings were ongoing.

The appellate court’s description of the interaction between the probate and superior court as “complicated” may be an understatement.  Cutting through the “complicated interaction” was case and fact specific, but there seems to be a handful of gems to consider when practitioners are wading through the superior court/probate court morass:

  • It was treated as a given that there were conflicting responsibilities and duties when the same person was both the executor of an estate and the head of a partnership that leased estate property.  Hiring separate counsel in these types of situations can be a good idea.  That’s what the person here ultimately ended up doing for the estate and the partnership.
  • Probate court orders during the administration of an estate can be “final” appealable orders if the order resolves an issue pending before the court.  This is somewhat unusual because, even though the estate remains open and may be open for years, the time to appeal an order could start running long before the administration closes.
  • A party that fails to intervene in a probate court proceeding may still have standing in the appeal of a probate court order.  Conversely, by implication, a party that has not intervened in the probate court proceeding may be bound by a probate court order. The issue was whether the partnership, which did not become a party to the probate court proceedings, could be a proper party to an appeal.  The Court of Appeals found that the partnership sufficiently protected its interests in the probate court when the executor allegedly placed the partnership’s interests above his duties to the estate beneficiaries.  That advancement of the partnership’s interests – even though it wasn’t a party – gave it standing on the appeal.  So, if a party is wearing multiple hats as executor, trustee, general partner, etc., they need to pay close attention to whether issues raised in the proceeding touch on other entities in which they have an interest that are not parties to the proceeding.  They may end up being bound without fully advocating their interests.
  • Probate courts aren’t going to like this, but the Court of Appeals again made clear that probate courts have concurrent jurisdiction with superior courts to hear certain categories of declaratory judgment petitions.  It seems that the Court of Appeals is willing to take a broad view as to what falls in those categories.
  • A superior court can enter a temporary restraining order enjoining probate court proceedings.