Florida Probate, Trust & Guardianship Litigation

Evidentiary Standard for Incapacity in Florida Guardianship Proceeding

In Mills v. Mills, (1st DCA, June 24, 2014) the Florida appellate court addressed the evidentiary burdens in a guardianship incapacity hearing.   

The Facts Of Mills v. Mills

The Florida guardianship court and the litigants get crossed up over a rule of trial procedure. This guardianship case concerns a son, H. Lee Mills, who petitioned to determine the capacity of his mom, Helen Mills. Lee wanted to potentially challenge certain changes that were made to his parents’ estate planning docs by other family members.  The Florida guardianship court granted an involuntary dismissal after Lee presented his evidence.  The Florida appellate court reversed because the Florida guardianship court applied the wrong burden of proof.

Several witnesses testified during Lee’s case in chief at the guardianship incapacity hearing.  Helen’s granddaughter testified about her grandmother’s phobias, routines, and odd behavior.  An expert committee of three medical professionals that had examined Helen testified that Helen lacked capacity.  Helen’s primary care physician testified that Helen was “frail and probably weak, that her husband’s medical conditions were causing her a lot of mental anguish, but that he felt as though ‘she was very competent, [and] able to make decision[s].’”

After Lee’s case in chief, Helen and Lyn (Helen’s other son), moved for an involuntary dismissal of Lee’s petition to determine capacity.  The Florida guardianship court granted the involuntary dismissal.  In the order granting the involuntary dismissal, the Florida guardianship court stated that Lee did not meet his burden of proving incapacity by “clear and convincing evidence.” 

The Florida appellate court determined that this was error, because the correct burden of proof for granting or denying a motion for involuntary dismissal is competent substantial evidence.

The Florida appellate court also ruled that it was error for the Florida guardianship court to weigh the evidence at the end of Lee’s case-in-chief, because that task is reserved for after all of the evidence has been offered.  Even if the trial judge did not feel that Lee sustained his burden of proof following the presentation of Lee’s case, the judge was not permitted to weigh evidence when ruling on a motion for involuntary dismissal.  “If substantial competent evidence has been adduced, through conflicting, which, when considered in the light most favorable to the non-moving party would sustain a judgment in favor of that party then the motion should not be granted.”

Competent Substantial Evidence In Florida Incapacity Hearing

Substantial competent evidence is a much lower and easier to meet standard than clear and convincing evidence.  The side defending the incapacity proceeding, when faced with the evidence that was admitted into the record, essentially had the choice of not putting its case on (and risking having the guardianship court rule against them without the benefit of their own evidence) or proceeding to put its case on.  Although trial is expensive, the fact that they had already prepared for trial suggests the better course of action would have been to go ahead and present their evidence of capacity and lucidity rather than risking a reversal because the judge felt that the evidence presented by the moving part was not adequate to prove incapacity.

In guardianship incapacity proceedings, before an evidentiary hearing on incapacity can be held, two members of a three member committee must first make a finding that the alleged incapacitated person is in fact incompetent.  Only after the committee makes a determination of incapacity does the guardianship court hear the matter.  See Fla. Stat. 744.331.  If the committee finds that the person does have capacity, the proceedings are terminated.  In this case, the committee had determined the person to be incapacitated (like in all such guardianship cases that go to a hearing), making the likelihood that there would be substantial competent evidence presented almost a certainty.  

An evidentiary guardianship incapacity hearing is unlike most any other civil litigation that does not have this gatekeeping function, where a moving party could conceivably be conducting a jury trial with no such evidence, where the motion for involuntary dismissal could be warranted in some situations. 

Oral Argument at 5th District Court of Appeals

Florida Probate Attorney Jeffrey Skatoff Arguing in Court

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