In fiduciary litigation cases, it’s common to encounter courts and practitioners who don’t really appreciate the difference between a litigant’s individual capacity and that litigant’s representative, fiduciary capacity.  In other words, the two capacities tend to get conflated.

In Beekhuis v. Morris, a Florida appellate court reminds us that there really is a difference between someone acting individually and that same person acting in a representative capacity as a fiduciary.

Irene Morris created a trust that provided that she and her daughter, Marcia Beekhuis, would serve as co-trustees.  Under the trust’s terms, if two medical doctors opined that a trustee was legally disabled, then that trustee would be deemed incapacitated and the other co-trustee would assume the duties of the incapacitated trustee.

Beekhuis, individually and not in her capacity as co-trustee, filed a petition to determine whether her mother was incapacitated and to appoint a plenary guardian.  The petition made no reference to the trust.  Steven Morris filed a counter-petition, and, ultimately, the probate court entered an order naming Steven as the guardian.

Soon thereafter, Steven filed several motions in the guardianship proceeding in which he sought to have Beekhuis removed as trustee of the trust and to compel her, as trustee, to relinquish trust assets.  Beekhuis made a limited appearance, only in her individual capacity, arguing that the probate court lacked jurisdiction over her in her representative capacity as trustee.

The probate court entered an order granting Steven’s emergency motion to appoint a court monitor and to enjoin Beekhuis as trustee from selling Irene’s home.  Beekhuis appealed and argued that the probate court didn’t have jurisdiction over trust assets or over her in her representative capacity as trustee of the Irene Morris Revocable Trust because Beekhuis “filed no pleadings and sought no relief in her capacity as [t]rustee and did not subject either herself or the trust to the jurisdiction of the probate court.”  The appellate court agreed.

The probate court should not have asserted jurisdiction over the trust property and Beekhuis, in her capacity as trustee, when the original pleadings in the case never raised any claim over the trust or its property.