Florida Probate, Trust & Guardianship Litigation

Florida Probate Court Has Jurisdiction After Guardianship Proceedings

In many contested guardianship proceedings, issues can be litigated that affect the inheritance rights of the ward after the ward’s death.  Indeed, many guardianship disputes are, at bottom, a dispute among the heirs and family members over the ward’s estate before the ward is even dead.  In Mack v. Polsby (3rd DCA 2014), the appellee attempted to use orders rendered in the guardianship proceeding to protect her from an action in probate court.  The appellee argued that the Florida probate court lacked jurisdiction over matters that had already been determined in the Florida guardianship court.

This case involved a dispute between siblings.  Charles C. Mack (Mr. Mack) had four kids – Chris, Chuck, Kathleen, and Maureen.  Mr. Mack had a massive stroke and then fell into a coma.  Maureen filed a petition to become Mr. Mack’s emergency temporary guardian.  Maureen also filed guardianship petitions to create and fund a revocable trust.  Maureen was ultimately appointed as Mr. Mack’s plenary guardian.  The guardianship court gave Maureen permission to create a trust for Mr. Mack.   

The Trust contained language giving Maureen, as trustee, incredibly broad discretion.  Maureen, as trustee, had discretion to withhold distributions to her sibling beneficiaries for their “protection,” despite the fact that all of the siblings were in their sixties and competent.  Maureen, as trustee, also had discretion to suspend payment to any beneficiary if Maureen reasonably believed that beneficiary was incapable of taking care of himself or herself, or was likely to dissipate resources.  Needless to say, Maureen’s siblings were not happy with the Trust Maureen had created.

Mr. Mack died shortly after creation of the Trust.  Chris, Maureen’s brother, was appointed as personal representative of Mr. Mack’s Florida estate.  Chris sued Maureen to invalidate the Trust, for breach of fiduciary duty, and to remove Maureen as trustee.  Maureen argued that the probate court did not have jurisdiction over Chris’s complaint, because Chris was asking the probate court to review the guardianship court’s order permitting creation of the Trust.  The Florida probate court ultimately agreed with Maureen and entered a final order dismissing Chris’s complaint for lack of jurisdiction.

The appellate court reversed, finding that the probate court indeed had jurisdiction over all three counts of Chris’s trust complaint.  Regarding Count I (invalidation of the trust), the complaint alleged that Maureen failed to serve the petitions to create the trust on Plaintiffs, and that Maureen committed a fraud upon the guardianship court when she petitioned to create and fund a revocable trust.  

The probate court also had jurisdiction over Counts II (breach of fiduciary duty) and Count III (removal of trustee), because the events underlying these counts occurred after the creation of the trust and could not have been determined by the guardianship court.

Oral Argument at 5th District Court of Appeals

Florida Probate Attorney Jeffrey Skatoff Arguing in Court

Jeffrey Skatoff

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