Probate Court and Family Court collide

Florida Appeals Court Comes Down Against Probate Creditor Claims From Child For Child Support Arrearages

On May 11, 2016, the Fourth District Court of Appeal issued its decision in Davis v. Hengen regarding creditor claims for child support arrearages against a decedent’s estate, when the decedent dies with unpaid child support obligations.

Upon the dissolution of their marriage, Clifford Davis and his then wife entered into a marital and property settlement agreement. According to the agreement, Clifford was obligated to pay monthly child support to his ex-wife to support their daughter, Deborah. When the father died, he died intestate. At the time of his death, the father had outstanding child support payments due. Deborah and Clifford’s current wife, Acaia, were appointed co-personal representatives of Clifford’s estate.

Clifford’s ex-wife (Deborah’s mother) filed a statement of claim against Clifford’s estate for the unpaid child support. She ultimately filed an independent action against the co-personal representatives of the estate for the unpaid child support. Deborah, who was still a co-personal representative, also filed a statement of claim against the estate for the unpaid child support, and also ultimately filed an independent action on her claim against the estate. Deborah then moved to consolidate her action with her mother’s action.

Acaia moved to dismiss Deborah’s complaint, arguing that Deborah lacked standing to pursue the owed child support because the right had vested solely in Deborah’s mother. The trial court in Palm Beach County granted the motion to dismiss for multiple reasons. First, there was a conflict as the mother and daughter were represented by the same counsel when they were seeking the same arrearages. Second, there was a conflict as the daughter was both a claimant and a co-personal representative of the estate. Third, the trial court stated that the mother had the vested right in the child support, not the daughter. Deborah then appealed her cause to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

On appeal, Deborah argued that the trial court erred in dismissing for lack of standing and conflicts of interests. Acaia once again argued that only the mother could collect the child support arrearages as she was the one with the vested right. Deborah argued that her mother’s vested right does not prevent her claim to pursue the arrearages.

In their opinion, the Fourth District Court stated:

We have held that a child has standing to enforce rights that ripen after the child reaches the age of majority. Brown v. Brown, 484 So. 2d 1282 (Fla. 4th DCA 1986). But we have never held, nor has any other court held, that the rights that accrue during the age of minority can be enforced by anyone other than the child’s legal representative.

Therefore, the Fourth DCA affirmed the trial court’s decision based on Deborah’s lack of standing.  The Court did not address the conflict issues presented.

Within a footnote, the Court did acknowledge a prior case from the Third District Court of Appeal stating that a child can pursue child support arrearages as third party beneficiaries. Newman v. Newman, 459 So. 2d 1129 (Fla. 3d DCA 1984). However, the Court recognized that this statement was dicta from the Third District Court of Appeal, and that the holding of the Court was that the custodial parent of an emancipated child retained the right to enforce child support arrearages that accrued prior to the child’s emancipation. The Fourth DCA indicates that the intent of the Davis opinion is not to prevent an emancipated child from pursuing child support arrearages if the parent is unable or unwilling to pursue them.

This article is meant to provide a brief overview of the issue of standing in probate proceedings. Those interested in more information on the topic should consult an attorney. Please do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Chepenik Trushin LLP, who are ready willing, and able to assist with your estate planning and probate litigation needs.