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FLORIDA ESTATE LAWSUIT PITS STEPSON VS. STEPFATHER: very recent Florida case involving a revocable trust, Florida Homestead and tortuous interference with an inheritance

Uncategorized Dec 27, 2013

Just in time for Christmas, a very recent opinion from a Florida appellate court which heard a probate litigation case. The Florida appellate court published its opinion, literally days ago this month, about an inheritance lawsuit which involved a mother’s Florida revocable trust, a deed of Florida real estate, reforming the deed, and an inheritance lawsuit by a stepson against a stepfather for tortious interference with an inheritance.

This is the case of a stepson versus a stepfather. The deceased Florida woman was married to a man who was her husband, but not the father of her adult son. So you have a dead mother, her adult son who survived her, and a widower, the surviving husband. And, of course, there was money involved. Are you surprised that there was estate litigation in Florida?  After all, the Boston College Ctr. of wealth and philanthropy has estimated that $41 trillion – – trillion, with a “t”, not billions – – is now being transferred from the WWII generation to the baby boomers and Generation X and generation Y. Oh yes, and important point: the dead Florida resident, the woman, signed a prenuptial agreement with her husband, now the Florida widower.

This is a Florida probate litigation case. The deceased Florida resident had some money of her own. After she married her latest husband, she placed the Florida Homestead, her main Florida residence, into her Florida revocable trust. A deed was later signed transferring the Florida Homestead from her Florida revocable trust into her name, and her husband’s name, as joint tenants by the entirety.

Tenancy by the entirety is a form of ownership in Florida between two spouses: a husband and wife. There are many advantages and unique characteristics about a Florida tenancy by the entirety, which may provide certain protections regarding inheritance rights and creditors in Florida.

Evidently, the deed of the Florida Homestead needed to be reformed. You can reform deeds in Florida, to correct a mistake. Reformation is permitted for Florida wills, and also Florida trusts. When you reform a deed, or a Florida will, or Florida trust, there are important guidelines and procedures which must be followed. Reformation of Florida wills, and trust Reformation, have specific statutes in the Florida probate code, and in the Florida trust code. When you reform a deed or a Florida trust, you are not rewriting it. You are correcting a mistake. Increasingly, Florida courts, especially Florida probate courts, are being asked to reform wills, trusts, and deeds, by Florida probate lawyers and Florida estate lawyers. A Reformation lawsuit to correct the mistake in a will or for a Florida trust, requires knowledge and experience in this unique area of Florida probate law.  A probate lawyer in Florida must know the procedures, how to prove or obtain Reformation from a Florida probate court, and how you may or may not seek attorneys fees. Oh yes, proving your case, the burden of proof, is different in a will Reformation case for a Florida trust Reformation case than in a typical civil case. If you are reforming a Florida will or a trust, make sure your Florida probate litigator explains this burden to you in detail, as well as an estimate, or a range, of possible outcomes, and likelihood of success.

Now, back to this recent case of a stepson engaged in Florida estate litigation with his stepfather– Florida widower. Even though the Florida Homestead was held as tenants by the entirety, those property rights created by the tenancy by the entirety were not what was intended by the deceased Florida resident.

Tenancy by the entirety is a form of a joint tenancy in Florida, with a right of survivorship, for the benefit of the surviving joint tenant. In this case, since the wife was now dead, the husband would inherit the Florida Homestead. The opinion of the appellate court suggested that the deceased mother, the deceased spouse, did not intend for her husband to receive 100% of the Florida Homestead. Was the adult son of the deceased Florida resident supposed to get nothing from the Florida Homestead? No. Rather, it was mom’s intent that her son receive the Florida Homestead after her new husband had a “life estate”, or a right to live in the Florida Homestead for his life. In instances such as this, where the person who signed the Florida deed evidently did not understand the deed, or the Florida real estate property rights, and where a mistake may have been made, a Florida probate court may, in fairness, correct the mistake, allow Reformation, and reform the Florida deed.

The stepfather, the widower, was also sued by his stepson for damages. The stepson sued his stepfather for, allegedly, the stepfather’s role regarding the deed of the Florida Homestead. The stepson sued the stepfather, the widower, for tortious interference with an inheritance and breach of the prenuptial agreement.

Tortious interference with an inheritance, also called tortious interference with an expectancy, is a Florida inheritance lawsuit which seeks damages against somebody who has wrongfully, and intentionally, interfered with your expectation of receiving an inheritance. In Florida, tortious interference with an inheritance may get you a jury trial and, in appropriate circumstances, and if you follow the proper Florida legal procedure, may also permit you to seek and obtain punitive damages. The law of punitive damages in Florida is a subspecialty of the law of damages.

Prenuptial agreements in Florida are valid as long as they are executed properly. Florida prenuptial agreements are also referred to as “prenups” or “antenuptial agreements.” Increasingly, Florida probate courts from Palm Beach to Miami, including such places as Fort Lauderdale and Martin County, Florida, review and make rulings and issue judgments over the validity, or invalidity of prenuptial agreements. Many times, a surviving spouse, a Florida widow, will seek estate rights, or a Florida inheritance. This can be problematic if the spouse also signed a prenuptial agreement or a postnuptial agreement, waving all their rights to an inheritance. Sometimes spouses, or boyfriends and girlfriends, sign “cohabitation agreements” in Florida. Regardless, if you waive your rights to an inheritance, or waive all your rights to a Florida estate of a partner or spouse, under a prenuptial agreement, or other contract, you may not be able to assert your rights to an inheritance, or to the estate of the deceased Florida spouse. Many times, children from a prior marriage or relationship, get involved in a legal inheritance fight with their parent’s second or third spouse.  They are involved in probate litigation over Florida inheritance rights, and rights under a Florida marital agreement, such as a prenuptial agreement.

The Florida appellate court which issued the opinion said: “We affirm the judgment regarding the reformation of the deed …, but because they are not supported by the record evidence, we must reverse the awards of damages on the claims for tortious interference and breach of an antenuptial agreement and remand for further proceedings.”

Ouch ! In Florida probate courts, like any other civil court in Florida, you must prove damages. Damages are the last element in a cause of action, or a lawsuit– the last thing to prove in probate court at the trial.   Damages must be proven for you to win. Damages cannot be proven by speculation or by guessing. Probate judges need to hear, and see, evidence of damages. Whether it’s by your probate trial lawyer calling witnesses, eliciting testimony, using deposition transcripts, introducing documents…..what matters is that you place facts in front of the probate court judge from which the Florida probate judge may make “findings of fact” and “conclusions of law.” A probate court is not going to assume, or guess,  what the damages are.

For a copy of this recent Florida opinion involving Florida Homestead, inheritance litigation, probate litigation and a Florida revocable trust please email Michelle@pankauskilawfirm.com.