Florida Probate Litigation Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Reopening an Estate

In addition to Florida’s strict two-year rule discussed last week in Part 1 of this blog post, there may also be shorter time periods to bring a claim depending on the type of creditor and the nature of the claim. Whereas Section 733.710 is a jurisdictional statute of nonclaim, Section 733.702 is a statute of limitation that may bar claims not instituted in a timely manner. Section 733.702 has been described as “‘an absolute bar’ to untimely filed claims,” with only very limited grounds upon which to seek an extension to the time limitation, the two primary grounds for extension being fraud or estoppel. Morgenthau v. Estate of Andzel, 26 So.3d 628, 631 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009). In Mr. Robson’s case, the fact that he was almost certainly not an ascertainable creditor (especially given his repeated denials, under oath, that Jackson molested him) means that no personal service of creditor notice would be required, and notice by publication would be sufficient. For claims “against the decedent’s estate that arose before the death of the decedent,” potential claimants that are not ascertainable are given a three month window in which to bring the claim. § 733.702(1), Fla. Stat. In addition to Jackson’s estate publishing a notice of administration on December 22, 2009, there is a fairly high probability that Mr. Robson knew about Mr. Jackson’s demise and the administration of his estate; that is, of course, unless Mr. Robson was on an extended vacation in Amish Pennsylvania, or perhaps on a walkabout in the Australian Outback. Because time periods to bring a claim vary depending on a multitude of factors, you should contact a probate attorney as soon as possible upon learning of EITHER the death of an individual against whom you believe that you have a claim or the probate of that individual’s estate. While every individual’s best course of action will vary and he or she should have individualized legal advice, as a general rule of thumb, it is not advisable to sit by idly for nearly four years before bringing a claim, especially when you repeatedly denied during the life of the decedent the exact underlying facts upon which your claim is premised.
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June 25, 2013 will mark the four-year anniversary of the untimely demise of the man affectionately referred to by the masses as the King of Pop: Michael Joseph Jackson. Despite suffering from an infirmity that has ended the professional pursuits of actors, entertainers, and businessmen alike (Death!), Forbes Magazine reported in 2012 that Michael Jackson earned more money in the three years following his death than any other living artist. In fact, during those three years, Michael Jackson’s estate generated nearly half a billion dollars. Although unclear whether the result of Jackson’s vastly expanding fortune or his use of high priced attorneys during his life to defend him on multiple legal fronts, more than 55 creditor’s claims were filed in the months following the following Michael Jackson’s Last Will being admitted to probate on August 3, 2009 when Special Letters of Administration were issued and the notice of death was published. With claims ranging from the thousands of dollars to over one billion dollars, the 24 months following his death saw a flurry of creditors asserting claims against Jackson’s estate. While new claims have been nearly nonexistent over the past year and a half, May of 2013 saw an explosive new claim levied by a familiar face from Michael’s past: Wade Robson, star defense witness in Michael Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial. Robson, who had for years maintained that Jackson never sexually molested him, claimed that he had uncovered repressed memories of molestation by Jackson and asked a California probate court to allow him to file a late creditor’s claim against the Estate of Michael Jackson, based on new allegations sexual abuse alleged to have occurred over 20 years ago.
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Perhaps the most important goal when it comes to settling one’s estate is to make sure that the desires of the decedent are properly met. In other words, a probate court’s goal is to make sure that the deceased’s assets are being distributed to those parties intended by the testator or those whom are legally entitled to benefit. If it can be demonstrated that a will was not settled in accordance with the decedent’s wishes, or certain individuals were improperly excluded or enriched a dispute may arise. Therefore, Florida Statute §733.903 allows for reopening of estate after it has been closed. In order to petition and then successfully reopen an estate that has been settled by a court, someone, whether in Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, must have good cause and for that reason, petitions to reopen estates are usually unsuccessful.

Good cause is limited to certain circumstances. For example, a trustee of an estate must show facts that allege some sort bad faith, such as fraud, or intentional errors in the initial estate determination. In some situations, motives such as greed and spite will influence an individual’s decision with regard to settling a family member’s estate. In this regard, if an estate was settled by a relative of a decedent, and this relative had reason to know that there were other family members (such as cousins, children, siblings, etc) that should also be considered heirs to the estate at issue, and the relative knowingly settled the estate without notifying or including these people, then those individuals could petition to a court to reopen the estate.
Another example that would justify the reopening of an estate under Florida law would be when a beneficiary under the will knew that the Testator was legally incompetent before settling the will, therefore making the will invalid. In other words, a person cannot a will is invalid if the testator is found to be incompetent. Incompetence can be established by legal disabilities which include being convicted of a felony, having been adjudicated as being mentally unable to understand the nature of the assets or implications of the will, or if one is under the age of 18. In estate cases, a beneficiary that knew of a Testator’s incompetence when the will was executed has a duty to notify the court and other beneficiaries. If it can be shown that the beneficiary knowingly neglected this duty, the other beneficiaries could reopen the estate if they properly petition the court.

When a petition to reopen an estate is filed, a probate court can review the record of the closed estate to determine whether there is any factual basis for the allegations that would lead to the petition. A unique feature of this review that distinguishes it from other civil courts is that the probate court can look to any factual circumstances surrounding the matter at hand, meaning that it does not have to rely solely on the complaint and the record. Therefore a party can introduce new evidence, which the probate court is allowed to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to reopen the estate. The complexity and unique review process by the court makes the hire of an experienced and knowledgeable attorney crucial for any individual that is looking for a favorable result.

If you or someone you know is interested in reopening an estate so that an individual may be properly included as an heir, it would be best to consult an attorney to establish a proper strategy to accomplish that goal.