By: David M. Garten, Esq.

ARTICLE: Probate Court’s Retention Of Jurisdiction Over Disputed Claims

After a claim is filed in the estate, the probate court retains jurisdiction to resolve some but not all issues pertaining to the validity of the claim. This article addresses those issues to be resolved in the probate division vs. those issues to be resolved in the civil division after the filing of an independent action.

Sec.733.702(1), F.S. reads: “If not barred by s. 733.710, no claim or demand against the decedent’s estate…is binding on the estate, on the personal representative, or on any beneficiary unless filed in the probate proceeding on or before the later of the date that is 3 months after the time of the first publication of the notice to creditors or, as to any creditor required to be served with a copy of the notice to creditors, 30 days after the date of service on the creditor, even though the personal representative has recognized the claim or demand by paying a part of it or interest on it or otherwise….

In addition, §733.705 reads in relevant part: “(2) On or before the expiration of 4 months from the first publication of notice to creditors or within 30 days from the timely filing or amendment of a claim, whichever occurs later, a personal representative or other interested person may file a written objection to a claim…. (5) The claimant is limited to a period of 30 days from the date of service of an objection within which to bring an independent action upon the claim, or a declaratory action…unless an extension of this time is agreed to by the personal representative in writing before it expires.”

In Northern Trust Co. v. Abbott, 2021 Fla. App. LEXIS 71; 2021 WL 45668 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1/6/21), the court addressed the scope of the probate court’s jurisdiction when faced with both an objection, which results in the filing of an independent action in circuit court, and a motion to strike a statement of claim. The claimant took the position that when she filed her independent action under §733.705(5), the probate court’s jurisdiction ended. In response, the court held:

“Neither the probate rules nor chapter 733 address the filing of a motion to strike, but the cases allow an interested party to file both an objection and a motion to strike a statement of claim, as Northern Trust did here. See Simpson v. Estate of Simpson, 922 So. 2d 1027, 1029 (Fla. 5th DCA 2006); Bell, 366 So. 2d at 767. A motion to strike tests the facial sufficiency of the statement of claim, whereas the objection—which requires the claimant to file an independent action—relates to the validity or merits of a facially sufficient claim. See Simpson, 922 So. 2d at 1029 (noting the probate court should have ended its inquiry after determining whether the claimant was a reasonably ascertainable creditor and erred in proceeding to determine the validity of the claimant’s claim, stating “the merits of [the claimant’s] claim should have been determined in an independent action”); Bell, 366 So. 2d at 767 (“The personal representative’s objection to the sufficiency of the [s]tatement of [c]laim can be raised only in the probate court. The personal representative may not collaterally attack the sufficiency of the claimant’s [s]tatement of [c]laim in the trial court which will hear the independent action.” (citations omitted)). When a challenge to the legal sufficiency of a claim is made, the probate court must first determine the facial sufficiency of the claim before the parties litigate the subject matter of the claim in circuit court. See id. Similarly, a challenge to the timeliness of the claim is also a matter within the jurisdiction of the probate court. See Picchione, 354 So. 2d at 955 (holding the probate court properly entered summary judgment on an untimely claim filed against the estate). If the statement of claim is not facially sufficient or is time barred, then there is no reason to require the parties to participate in an independent action to determine the merits of the claim.”

SUMMARY: A probate court retains jurisdiction to determine: (a) whether a claimant is a reasonably ascertainable creditor, (b) the facial sufficiency of the claim, and (c) whether the claim was timely filed in the probate court. Once an independent/declaratory action is filed, all other issues pertaining to the claim are resolved in the civil division.