It is often the case that people pass away with real property located in various states. What occurs when there is a bona fide dispute over where your loved-one was actually domiciled on the date of his or her death? What if there is a question as to which state should administer the estate?
The 4th District Court of Appeals recently heard a matter where there was such a dispute. The late mother of the appellant died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2011. The appellant subsequently opened a probate proceeding in Philadelphia seeking to probate a 2010 Will. When the mother’s surviving husband received notification of this proceeding, he subsequently filed a petition to open a probate administration in Palm Beach County, Florida, asserting that this 2010 Will was invalid due to undue influence and requested that the estate probate her 1991 Will instead.
The appellant (son) objected to the Florida proceedings opened by the appellee (husband) arguing that the decedent was domiciled in Pennsylvania and that there were no assets located in Florida. The son argued, in the alternative, that the Florida proceedings should stay because the Pennsylvania probate proceedings were opened first.
The Florida lower court denied the son’s motion to stay in the Florida proceedings and denied the motion that the probate proceedings were more appropriate in Pennsylvania. However, the Pennsylvania probate court had already determined that the decedent was domiciled in Pennsylvania on the date of her death.
After the Florida trial court entered final judgment on the contest of the 2010 Will, the son appealed claiming that it was improper for the trial court to have denied the motion to stay and improperly determined that the decedent was domiciled in Florida.
The appellate court discussed the “principle of priority”, where courts within one sovereignty claim concurrent jurisdiction, the court which exercises its jurisdiction first acquires exclusive jurisdiction to proceed with a case. Siegel v. Siegel, 575 So.2d 1267, 1272 (Fla. 1991). However, where two different states claim jurisdiction over a case, as a matter of comity, the court of one state may, in its discretion, stay their proceeding in deference of the other state’s court. Bedingfield v. Bedingfield 417 So.2d 1047, 1050 (Fla. 4th DCA 1982). Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, a court should respect the principle of priority and it is a reversible error for a court not to do so. Hirsch v. DiGaetano, 732 So.2d 1177, 1178 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999).
The threshold question for the appellate court, therefore, was whether Pennsylvania or Florida was the first state to exercise jurisdiction over the subject matter. Given that the Pennsylvania proceedings were initiated first, the appellate court was clear that the trial court abused its discretion by simply denying the motion to stay without any findings that there were extraordinary circumstances that would justify its refusal to honor the principle of priority. As a result, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s final judgment and ordered the trial court to stay the proceedings in Florida pending resolution of the Pennsylvania proceedings. Perelman v. Estate of Ruth C. Perelman, et al, 2013 Fla. App. LEXIS 17212.
Therefore, one should be careful and consult with an experienced probate attorney if there are any potential questions regarding whether Florida or any other state would be the appropriate location for the administration of an estate. If such a question is not properly addressed at the beginning, one might find themselves in the thick of an expensive, yet potentially unnecessary, appeal.