September 6, 2011
Authored by: Luke Lantta
In Florida, there was a split between the courts of appeals on the time limit in which someone could object to the qualifications of a personal representative. One court of appeals had decided that there was no time limit where the personal representative was a nonresident. Another court of appeals had held that there was a three-month time limit. In Hill v. Davis, the Florida Supreme Court resolved this split.
When Katherine Davis died, Douglas Davis, a resident of New York, filed a petition for administration claiming he was qualified to serve because he was the decedent’s stepson and was nominated under the will. Davis was appointed as personal representative and a copy of the notice of administration was served on Solveig Edna Hill, the decedent’s mother, on July 24, 2007. Over a year later, on August 6, 2008, Hill filed a motion challenging Davis’s qualifications to serve as a nonresident personal representative. Hill alleged that because Davis’s father predeceased the decedent, Davis did not fall within the categories of persons entitled to serve as a nonresident personal representative under Florida Stat. 733.304. The trial court found that Davis was qualified to serve as a nonresident personal representative and that Hill’s objection was not filed within the three-month time frame set forth in Florida Stat. 733.212(3).
The applicable statute seems awfully clear on its face.Florida Stat. 733.212(3) provides that “[a]ny person on whom a copy of the notice of administration is served must object to the validity of the will, the qualifications of the personal representative, the venue, or the jurisdiction of the court by filing a petition or other pleading requesting relief in accordance with the Florida Probate Rules on or before the date that is 3 months after the date of service of a copy of the notice of administration on the objecting person, or those objections are forever barred.”
The Florida First District Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court on the grounds that Hill’s objection was barred by the three-month rule. The court of appeals did not reach the issue of whether Davis was, in fact, qualified to serve.
Straightforward, right? Nope. In 2004, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal had reached a different conclusion. In Angelus v. Pass, that court held that the three-month rule does not apply where the personal representative was never qualified to serve. This court looked at the statutes concerning the qualifications of personal representatives, saw there was no time limit within those statutes, and decided that the Florida legislature was separating commencement of administration from qualifying as a personal representative. Thus, if a personal representative was never qualified to serve, an objection to the qualifications could be made at any time.
The Florida Supreme Court disagreed with the Third District’s view and held that an objection to the qualifications of a personal representative, including an objection that the personal representative was never qualified to serve is not timely filed if not filed within three months after being served with a copy of the notice of administration unless there is fraud, misrepresentation or misconduct with regard to the qualifications that is not apparent on the face of the petition or discovered within the statutory time frame.
In reaching that decision, the Florida Supreme Court provided some good rules of thumb to practitioners. First, a statute has to be construed in a way to give meaning to each part of the statute. In deciding that an objection to qualifications could be brought at any time, it would have made meaningless that portion of the statute stating that a person “must object to . . . the qualifications of the personal representative” within three months.
Second, all parts of a probate code need to be read together. Each cannot be read in isolation. While it is true that the nonresident qualifications statute did not have a time limit for objecting, a time limit was clearly set forth in another section of the probate code.
Third, carefully evaluate the allegations in a petition to be appointed as personal representative and develop a comprehensive litigation plan at that time. Hill had filed several motions challenging the validity of the will, then she filed a motion challenging Davis’s qualifications. As the Florida Supreme Court noted, “it is significant that Hill knew at the outset of the administration of the estate that Davis was the son of the decedent’s deceased husband. Nothing was concealed or misrepresented . . . .” If Hill was going to object to Davis’s qualifications, there was no excuse for waiting over a year to raise those objections.