What Happens When a Party Dies During a Lawsuit?
One of the hotly-contested issues among Florida probate lawyers in the context of inheritance lawsuits involving beneficiaries of wills and trusts is whether and to what extent appellate courts have jurisdiction over orders entered in Florida lawsuits involving last wills and testaments and lawsuits involving Florida trusts, trustees, and beneficiaries.
Example from a Recent Lawsuit
Generally, Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.110, which governs “Appeal Proceedings to Review Final Orders of Lower Tribunals and Orders Granting New Trial in Jury and Non-Jury Cases,” applies to proceedings that seek review of orders in probate and guardianship matters that finally determine a right or obligation of an interested person as defined in the Florida Probate Code.” The dissenting opinion in one recent case in the First District Court of Appeals in Florida dealt with the issue of whether the court’s determination of whether notice was properly served on a creditor constitutes an appealable order. Grainger v. Wald 35 Fla.L.Weekly D381b (Fla. 1st DCA February 12, 2010).
In this case, Wald was involved in a car accident and sued Samuel Gus Felos. After Mr. Felos died, his estate was substituted as a party defendant in Mr. Wald’s personal injury case. The personal injury case resulted in an adverse judgment for more than one million dollars. Although Wald won the lawsuit, judgment wasn’t recorded until after Felos died. The Personal Representative of Felos’ estate served notice on Wald’s attorney triggering the thirty-day time requirement. When the claim was filed sometime after the thirty days, the Personal Representative argued it was untimely and forever barred. The dispute in probate court centered on whether the Personal Representative’s notice to the personal injury attorney constituted notice (Wald contended that service should have been on his “probate lawyer” not his personal injury attorney). When the probate court denied the Personal Representative’s motion to strike the claim as untimely, the Personal Representative appealed and the ruling was reversed.
The dissenting opinion authored by Judge Robert T. Benton makes a good point that the appellate courts only have jurisdiction to review orders denying petitions to strike claims only where they finally determine a right or obligation of an interested person. In this case, the judgment entered against the estate after Mr. Felos died might not be deemed a claim or demand against the decedent’s estate that arose before the death of the decedent. To hold otherwise would be to allow the Personal Representative to unfairly insulate the estate from a judgment against it by deeming untimely underlying claims after they had merged into the judgment. As Judge Benton points out, however, in this case, the judgment was entered posthumously against the estate. Since upon his death, Mr. Felos’s estate had been substituted as a party in the personal injury case, Mr. Wald was a judgment creditor of the estate, not of the decedent.