Appointment of a Personal Representative: Araguel v. Bryan, 343 So. 3d 1236 (Fla. 1st DCA 2022)
The First District Court of Appeal, in the recent case of Araguel v. Bryan, 343 So. 3d 1236 (Fla. 1st DCA 2022), held that the probate court was without discretion to appoint an otherwise-qualified personal representative who is nominated in a decedent’s will.
In this case, Araguel petitioned for the administration of his mother’s last will, requesting that the nominated personal representative in that will be appointed. However, the decedent’s other son, Bryan, objected to that appointment. The probate court, after a hearing, declined to appoint the appointed personal representative; while finding that the appointed personal representative was qualified to serve under the Probate Code, the probate court determined there were “tangible and substantial reasons to believe that damage [would] accrue to the estate if Jerry D. Sanders were appointed Personal Representative in this case, because the facts presented display[ed] an adverse interest to the Estate.”
The First District disagreed and reversed the probate court. The appellate court explained that the trial court is without discretion to refuse to appoint the personal representative specified by the testator in the will, unless the person is expressly disqualified under the statute, of if there is discretion afforded within the statute itself. The First District further explained that there is no discretion vested to the trial court in Fla. Stat.. 733.301(1)(a) to permit the trial court to disregard the testator’s selection in the document itself, if the nominee is qualified to serve under Fla. Stat. §§ 733.302 and 733.303. So, the appellate court determined that the nominated personal representative in this case was qualified to serve, and not otherwise disqualified by the further statutes.
However, this new decision from the First District seems to not square up with prior decisions on this matter. For example, the Second District Court of Appeal explained in Estate of Snyder, 333 So. 2d 519, 520-21 (Fla. 2d DCA 1976) that an individual may be considered unsuitable to administer the estate, if there is an adverse interest of some kind, hostility to those immediately interested in the estate, or an interest adverse to the estate itself. The Court said:
To hold that only insanity, conviction of an infamous crime, and minority bar the appointment of appellants as administrators would give the statute an absurd construction. […]
Where the record supports the conclusion that a person occupying the position of statutory preference does not have the qualities and characteristics necessary to properly perform the duties of an administrator, it would be an anomaly to hold that a probate court, which has historically applied equitable principles in making its judgments, does not have the discretion to refuse to appoint him simply because he did not fall within the enumerated list of statutory disqualifications.
The First District Court of Appeal applied the Snyder court’s reasoning in Padgett v. Estate of Gilbert, 676 So. 2d 440, 443 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996). The Padgett court held:
Although the probate statutes do not expressly impose a general requirement of “good moral character” for persons seeking to qualify as a personal representative, the circuit court has the inherent authority to consider a person’s character, ability and experience to serve as personal representative.
(citing Estate of Snyder).
Under the Padgett reasoning, if the record supports the conclusion that the person lacks the necessary qualities and characteristics, the court has discretion to refuse to appoint even a person occupying a position of statutory preference who is not specifically disqualified by the statute. See id.
Can a Florida probate court decline to appoint a nominated personal representative? The short answer is yes, but in limited circumstances. One such circumstance might even be if there was evidence of an occurrence that would have changed the testator’s mind had he or she known of or been aware of that such occurrence.
In short, there are differences in the appointment statutes (Fla. Stat. 733.301 et seq.) and the removal statutes (Fla. Stat. 733.504) which should be considered in connection with the appointment and possible removal of a personal representative. There are additional and further appellate opinions which discuss the discretion of the trial court relative to the appointment of a nominated personal representative other than the Araguel case, and all of these details should be discussed with your trusted probate lawyer.