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Can I Sue a Family Member’s Estate in Federal Court?


In the United States there are both federal and state courts. The state courts are generally responsible for estate and probate administration. In other words, when a Florida resident passes away, his or her estate will be administered by a state probate court. But what happens if someone files a lawsuit against the estate in federal court?

Understanding the “Probate Exception”

In most cases, the federal court will decline to hear the case under what is known as the “probate exception.” Here is an example of what we’re talking about. In this case, Stuart v. Hatcher, a woman accused her brother of mismanaging their father’s estate. The father died in Georgia, and his estate was probated in that state’s courts. While the state case was pending, however, the sister filed a separate lawsuit in federal court, accusing her brother of breaching his fiduciary duty as executor of the estate.

The federal court dismissed the case. The sister then appealed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees federal courts in Georgia as well as Florida and Alabama. The 11th Circuit agreed with the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case. It noted this was a classic situation where the probate exception applies.

The probate exception actually dates back to the earliest days of American law. The basic idea is simple: A federal court should not interfere with a state court’s ability to administer a probate estate, even if the federal court technically has the right to do so. Or as the 11th Circuit has explained in previous cases, while a creditor may obtain a civil judgment against a probate estate in federal court, the federal court cannot directly order the estate to pay the claim. That would be improperly assuming “control over property under probate,” which is exclusively the right of the state court.

So in the Stuart case, the sister asked a federal court to issue a judgment against her father’s estate, which is still being administered by the Georgia courts. The 11th Circuit said that in order to do what the sister wanted, the federal courts would have to effectively involve itself in the management of the estate–e.g., it would need to determine the value of the estate’s assets, decide if the brother was mismanaging those assets, and calculate any harm suffered by the sister. These are precisely the “kinds of tasks that are reserved to the state probate courts,” the 11th Circuit said.

Speak with a Fort Myers Probate Lawyer Today

Most Florida estates are resolved without the need for litigation. But if there is a dispute, it is critical for both the challenger and the estate to work with a qualified Fort Myers estate and probate administration lawyer. The law surrounding probate is quite complex on its own–and it is only complicated more by the emotional baggage the parties bring to the table. So if you need advice or assistance with a Florida probate matter, contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 to schedule a free consultation today.


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