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What Is the “Probate Exception” and How Could It Affect My Future Estate?


Probate estates are administered under state law. That is to say, when you open an estate for a deceased person, you do so by filing a petition with a Florida state court, which oversees the proceedings. Federal courts typically do not get involved with the administration of estates under a judicial rule known as the “probate exception.”

Miami Magistrate Declines to Dismiss Lawsuit Over Property Allegedly Embezzled from Deceased Man

The purpose of the exception is to prevent someone from trying to circumvent the state probate process by filing a federal lawsuit. That being said, there are situations where a federal court may still exercise jurisdiction over a lawsuit that may implicate the rights of a probate estate. For example, if the estate is trying to recover property wrongfully taken from the decedent, the probate exception may not apply.

An ongoing lawsuit in Miami federal court, Catano v. Capuano, provides a helpful illustration. This lawsuit revolves around a Florida corporation previously owned by a now-deceased man (the decedent). The decedent was the corporation’s sole shareholder. The corporation itself owned a property in Miami valued at approximately $2.6 million.

The decedent was married but estranged from his wife. For the last seven years of his life, the decedent was in a relationship with another woman, who is the plaintiff in this case. The plaintiff is a Colombian national living in Guatemala. The decedent’s estranged wife relocated to the Netherlands.

Shortly before the decedent passed away in 2014, the nephew of his estranged wife allegedly hatched a scheme to sell the Miami property without the decedent’s knowledge and embezzle the profits. This unauthorized sale remained pending at the time of the decedent’s death. Under the terms of the decedent’s will, which was probated in Guatemala, the plaintiff was entitled to half of the decedent’s estate, with the other half going to his adult daughter.

The plaintiff sued the nephew and the estranged wife in Miami federal court, essentially demanding the return of the embezzled proceeds from the property sale. The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit, citing among other reasons the probate exception. In essence, the defense argued the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case because this was a matter to be sorted out in state probate court.

A federal magistrate disagreed and denied the motion to dismiss on those grounds. The magistrate explained the probate exception applies to legal disputes on how to distribute assets in an estate. It does not cover a situation, such as this one, where the estate is seeking “the return of property that is in the Defendant’s possession and does not in any way interfere with the probate court proceedings.”

Speak with a Florida Probate Litigation Lawyer Today

Recovering stolen property is just one reason your future estate may end up in court. While nobody wants to contemplate the possibility of estate litigation, it is nevertheless something you need to be aware of. And if you are currently involved in a probate matter and require the advice of a qualified Fort Myers estate litigation attorney, contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 today to schedule a free consultation.


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