Recognition of Foreign Judgments in Probate Proceedings

Will a final judgment in the State of Florida be recognized and given the same effect the judgment would have in a territorial probate court of the United States? Any final judgment rendered in a Florida probate court regarding the validity of a decedent’s last will and testament, for example, will be treated in the same manner as a judgment from any territory of the United States (Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.), so long as the Florida court had adjudicatory authority over the subject matter and persons governed by the judgment. Furthermore, the Florida judgment will “have the same effect and shall be subject to the same procedures, defenses and proceedings for reopening, vacating, or staying” as a final order of the respective territorial court. 5 V.I.C. § 553.

Nevertheless, what constitutes a “final order” has been the subject of significant and extensive litigation. Before adopting the present Florida Probate Rules, an order of the probate court was usually regarded as being clothed with sufficient finality to support an appeal if it conclusively determined a particular question affecting an aggrieved party. In re Estate of Baker, 327 So. 2d 205, 207 (Fla. 1976). In other words, when “there is a termination of the judicial labor on the issue involved as to that party, . . . the right of appeal arises.” Id. But, according to the present Rule 5.100 of the Florida Probate Rules, the right to appeal from a purported final order is governed by Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.170, “Appeal Proceedings in Probate and Guardianship Cases.” Rule 9.170 states in relevant part:

(b) Appealable Orders. Except for proceedings under rule 9.100 and rule 9.130(a), appeals of orders rendered in probate and guardianship cases shall be limited to orders that finally determine a right or obligation of an interested person as defined in the Florida Probate Code.

Fla. R. App. P. 9.170(b). The rule lists substantive examples of orders that finally determine a right or obligation, including, but not limited to, orders that “(2) determine a petition or motion to revoke probate of a will,” “(5) grant heirship, succession, entitlement, or determine the persons to whom distribution should be made,” and orders that “(8) determine a petition or motion to determine incapacity or to remove rights of an alleged incapacitated person or ward.” Fla. R. App. P. 9.170(2),(5),(8). Consequently, the determination of the validity of a decedent’s will, or the right of a person to participate as an heir in the estate, is a final determination and immediately appealable, although the administration of the estate continues and the distribution is made long after that determination.

Finally, “once the court, which originally entered the judgment, had jurisdiction over the case and the parties, and the defendant had an opportunity to appear and defend in the action, a Defendant cannot successfully challenge the validity of the judgment in another state. Rather, the Defendant must challenge the validity and merits of the judgment in the state court which entered the judgment.” Malpere v. Malpere, 2004 WL 3104826 (V.I. Super.), citing Underwriters National Assurance Company v. North Carolina Life and Accidental Health Insurance Guaranty Association, 455 U.S. 691 (1982).

In Malpere, the plaintiff-wife filed an action in the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands, a territorial court of the United States, seeking to implement a foreign default judgment enforcing the parties’ Tennessee Divorce. 2004 WL 3104826 at 1. In turn, the defendant-husband filed a motion to set aside the default judgment, alleging that the default was not the result of inexcusable neglect and should therefore be vacated. Id. at 1-4. The Court concluded, however, that because the case before the Virgin Islands’ Court was “simply an enforcement of a judgment action in which the underlying controversy [had] already been adjudicated,” the defendant would have to litigate the default in the Courts of Tennessee to challenge the judgment on the merits. Id. at 5-6.

It seems probable, then, that if a decedent’s estate were to receive a judgment in a Florida probate court upholding the validity of the decedent’s last will and testament, for example, the territorial courts of the United States would not only enforce the judgment in the same manner as it would a judgment from its own courts, but would further refuse to adjudicate the underlying merits of the Florida decision.

If you or someone you know has an issue regarding foreign judgments in probate litigation or you would like to take appropriate action in a probate proceeding to enforce a foreign judgment, it is important that you have experienced and knowledgeable representation. If you are in need of such representation, please do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Chepenik Trushin LLP. The experienced attorneys at Chepenik Trushin LLP are ready, willing, and able to assist with any estate planning needs you may have. Please feel free to contact us for an initial consultation.