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The Probate Exception to Federal Court Jurisdiction

Written by on Jun 3, 2009| Posted in: General

Sometimes it is beneficial for a party to file a lawsuit in the federal court system. This can be for many reasons: amount of damages, convenience, accelerated docket, formality, and the perception of getting fair and just treatment for out of state litigants.

Generally speaking, disputes concerning probate matters involve petitions and appeals to the state court system as opposed to the federal courts. This is for a variety of reasons, however, the one most articulated by federal court judges for refusing to hear a probate dispute is something called the federal court jurisdiction probate exception.

Our United States Supreme Court explained the probate exception to federal jurisdiction:

“Federal courts of equity have jurisdiction to entertain suits “in favor of creditors, legatees and heirs” and other claimants against a decedent’s estate “to establish their claims” so long as the federal court does not interfere with the probate proceedings or assume general jurisdiction of the probate or control of the property in the custody of the state court.” Markham v. Allen, U.S. 490 (1946).

Recently the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the nature of the probate exception:

“when one court is exercising in rem jurisdiction over a res, a second court will not assume in rem jurisdiction over the same res. Thus, the probate exception reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent’s estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.” Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293 (2006).

Thus, it is universally recognized that federal courts do not favor taking jurisdiction over probate matters, which are cases that are typically exclusively reserved for state courts. This recognition doesn’t stop people from requesting federal courts from hearing probate issues, (sometimes federal courts do hear issues peripheral to probate) and one such request was recently heard in the Southern District United States Court in Sarhan v. Rothenberg 2008 WL 2474645 (S.D. Fla.).

This case involved an Emergency Petition for Habeus Corpuys filed in federal court by Dr. Robert Sarhan, on behalf his mother. According to the Petition, Judge Arthur Rothenberg, a judge in the probate division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit for Miami-Dade County, violated Dr. Sarhan’s mother’s’s due process rights when he deemed her incapacitated and appointed her a guardian. Dr. Sarhan, on behalf of his mother, also claimed that Judge Rothenberg acted unlawfully by appointing Enrique Zamora as his mother’s attorney ad litem while Mr. Zamora was concurrently serving as an attorney for his mother’s temporary guardian. Dr. Sarhan claimed violations of his mother’s state and federal constitutional rights and asked the federal court to vacate all the orders of the state probate court and for the return of all assets to their rightful owners prior to the commencement of the guardianship proceedings.

The federal court quickly dismissed the case by looking right to the probate exception discussed above and chose to rely on a quote by the erudite opinion of Judge Posner of the Seventh Circuit:

“The res-the plaintiff’s mother-is in the control of the guardian appointed by the state court, and decisions concerning the plaintiff’s right of access to his mother and to her assets, her records, and her mail are at the heart of the guardian’s responsibilities and are supervised by the court that appointed him … [P]laintiff is seeking to remove into the federal court the res over which a state court is exercising control. That is the sort of maneuver that the probate/domestic-relations exception is intended to prevent.” Struck v. Cook County Pub. Guardian, 508 F.3d 858 (7th Cir.2007).

While there are some narrowly tailored exceptions to the general rule that federal courts don’t have jurisdiction over probate and domestic matters, in Dr. Sarhan’s case the Federal Court found no such exception. Dr. Sarhan and his mother may have been better served by having a probate litigation attorney attempt to have Judge Rothenberg’s orders reviewed and/or reversed by making an appeal to the Florida Third District Court of Appeals and perhaps eventually to the Florida Supreme Court.

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