Florida Probate, Trust & Guardianship Litigation

Complete Guide to Standing in Florida Guardianship Proceedings

“Standing” is a requirement that a litigant have a stake in the outcome of a proceeding.  In most litigation, the issues of standing never arises.  Most plaintiffs in a lawsuit would not be spending time and money on litigation unless there was something to be gained.  Litigation over the issue of standing goes back centuries.  The seminal United States Supreme Court case on standing, Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992), holds that  the plaintiff must have suffered an “injury in fact”—an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) “actual or imminent, not ‘conjectural’ or ‘hypothetical.’”

Guardianship litigation is different, because in most instances it is only the ward or the alleged incapacitated person (“AIP”) who has any actual stake in the outcome.  To reflect the strong public policy that family members and other persons with a desire to protect the ward’s interests should be allowed to participate in guardianship proceedings, a different standard is used, known as the “interested person” standard.  Rather than a fixed concept, the idea of “interested person” has devolved into more of an “I’ll know it when I see it standard,” which makes determining whether a person can participate difficult in edge cases.  Therefore, a review of the caselaw is the best way to assess standing.

Hayes v. Guardianship of Thompson,

The Florida Supreme Court, in Hayes v. Guardianship of Thompson, 952 So.2d 498 (Fla. 2006), held that the heirs to a ward’s estate do not have standing to participate in a proceeding regarding the guardian’s fees.  

Standing is a legal concept that requires a would-be litigant to demonstrate that he or she reasonably expects to be affected by the outcome of the proceedings, either directly or indirectly.  Thus, standing to bring or participate in a particular legal proceeding often depends on the nature of the interest asserted.

In guardianship proceedings, the overwhelming public policy is the protection of the ward. See § 744.1012, Fla. Stat. (2006) (declaring that the purpose of the Florida Guardianship Law is “to promote the public welfare by establishing a system that permits incapacitated persons to participate as fully as possible in all decisions affecting them; that assists such persons in meeting the essential requirements for their physical health and safety, in protecting their rights, in managing their financial resources, and in developing or regaining their abilities to the maximum extent possible; and that accomplishes these objectives through providing, in each case, the form of assistance that least interferes with the legal capacity of a person to act in her or his own behalf”. Thus, unlike most other types of litigation, guardianship proceedings are not adversarial and are governed by a comprehensive statutory code and set of procedural rules dictating who should receive notice of a particular proceeding.

Unlike rule 5.700(a), which addresses objections to guardianship reports and allows “interested persons” to file an objection to any part of a guardianship report, there is no specific guardianship rule that provides for notice of, or objections to, petitions for guardian’s or attorney’s fees beyond what is provided in section 744.108. However, rule 5.060, which applies to all guardianship and probate proceedings in this state, including proceedings under section 744.108, provides:

(a) Request. Any interested person who desires notice of proceedings in the estate of a decedent or ward may file a separate written request for notice of further proceedings, designating therein such person’s residence and post office address. When such person’s residence or post office address changes, a new designation of such change shall be filed in the proceedings. A person filing such request, or address change, shall also deliver a copy thereof to the clerk, personal representative or guardian, noting on the original the fact of mailing.

(b) Notice and Copies. A party filing a request shall be served thereafter by the moving party with notice of further proceedings and with copies of subsequent pleadings and papers as long as the party is an interested person.

Thus, under rule 5.060, an “interested person” who files a request is entitled to notice of further proceedings and copies of all subsequent pleadings in the case. Although section 744.108 does not specifically require that an “interested person” receive notice, a person is nonetheless entitled to notice pursuant to rule 5.060 as long as the requirements of the rule have been satisfied and the trial court agrees that the person does in fact qualify as an “interested person.”…  The question is what are the criteria for determining who qualifies as an “interested person.” Both the Florida Guardianship Law and the Florida Probate Rules specify that the term “interested person” is to be accorded the definition contained in chapters 731-735, Florida Statutes, known as the Florida Probate Code.11 The Florida Probate Code defines the term “interested person” as any person who may reasonably be expected to be affected by the outcome of the particular proceeding involved. In any proceeding affecting the estate or the rights of a beneficiary in the estate, the personal representative of the estate shall be deemed to be an interested person. In any proceeding affecting the expenses of the administration and obligations of the decedent’s estate, or any claims described in s. 733.702(1), the trustee of a trust described in s. 733.707(3) is an interested person in the administration of the grantor’s estate. The term does not include a beneficiary who has received complete distribution. The meaning, as it relates to particular persons, may vary from time to time and must be determined according to the particular purpose of, and matter involved in, any proceedings.

§ 731.201(21), Fla. Stat. (2006).

Thus, unlike a ward, a guardian, or next of kin, who are specific persons occupying finite, statutorily defined roles,12 the definition of “interested person” requires the trial court to evaluate the nature of both the proceeding and the interest asserted. In defining an “interested person” as any person “who may reasonably be expected to be affected by the outcome of the proceeding,” section 731.201(21) incorporates the general standing principles referred to above. And because the question of who is an “interested person” may vary as the circumstances of the guardianship change, we cannot provide strict guidelines for the lower courts to follow in deciding whether a party who receives notice of a petition for attorney’s fees pursuant to a request made under rule 5.060 is a “person who may reasonably be expected to be affected by the outcome of the . . . proceeding.” § 731.201(21), Fla. Stat.

[J]ust as it is obviously for the competent person to spend or misspend his assets as he pleases, so it is up to the guardianship estate, regulated by the guardian and the court, to do the same without the interference or concern with the totally non-altruistic wishes of the ward’s relatives or legatees.  Our review of the record reveals that the petitioners never made a request for notice under rule 5.060 as interested persons.13 Further, their involvement in guardianship proceedings that were necessitated by their own mistreatment of the ward and misappropriation of her funds does not entitle them to participate in proceedings involving requests for attorney’s fees by the ward’s attorney. The fact that they may have received a courtesy copy of some of the prior petitions does not in itself confer standing on them to participate in the subsequent proceeding. Because the petitioners were not entitled to receive notice of the attorney’s fees proceeding under either section 744.108 or rule 5.060, they did not have standing to participate in that proceeding.

Rudolph v. Rosecan 

In Rudolph v. Rosecan (4th DCA 2014), the Court held that the mother of an autistic adult ward was not an “interested person” for the purpose of inspecting guardianship reports and other information. The father had been appointed plenary guardian. 

The parents had agreed to a parenting and timesharing plan, where the parents had shared parental responsibility and required them to confer and attempt to agree on all major issues affecting the ward.  The father had the ultimate authority in the case of no agreement.

A dispute entailed, and the father / guardian moved to dismiss the mother’s objections to the annual guardianship plan, which includes an accounting and other financial matters.  In denying the mother’s standing to participate in or object to the annual accounting or other financial matters, the court rejected the idea that standing can be obtained through one’s status as next of kin.  Although next of kin gives a person certain rights with respect to a guardianship proceeding, that status, standing alone, does not give the standing necessary to receive accountings or other financial information. 

The Court relied on the Florida Supreme Court of Hayes v. Guardianship of Thompson, 952 So.2d 498 (Fla. 2006), which held that heirs to a ward’s estate do not have standing to participate in a proceeding regarding the guardian’s fees.  The Court also relied on the case of Bivens v. Rogers, 147 So.3d 549 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014), which held that a next of kin could not initiate proceedings to change the residence of a ward. 

As our supreme court has taught us, there is no bright-line rule. A person’s status as an “interested person” with standing in a guardianship proceeding is dependent upon whether the person would be affected by the outcome of the proceedings. Simply being next of kin does not confer “interested person” status.

Perhaps the rulings of the cases do not shut out family members as much as a first reading might suggest.  Instead, family members who wish to participate in guardianship proceedings need to articulate specific ways in which they will be affected by the proceedings, be they financial or otherwise.  

Oral Argument at 5th District Court of Appeals

Florida Probate Attorney Jeffrey Skatoff Arguing in Court

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