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Navigating Probate Litigation: Understanding Personal Representative Removal in Florida for Conflict of Interest

July 15, 2023
Coruption concepts, Bank employees or businessmen receive bribes from those involved in business crime.

As anyone familiar with probate litigation knows, understanding the intricacies of the process can be quite a task. In this complex landscape, one key element that often demands attention involves the removal of a personal representative due to a conflict of interest. Let’s unpack this issue as it unfolds under Florida law, specifically Fla. Stat. § 733.504, and is upheld in various court decisions.

733.504 Removal of personal representative; causes for removal.—A personal representative shall be removed and the letters revoked if he or she was not qualified to act at the time of appointment. A personal representative may be removed and the letters revoked for any of the following causes:

(1) Adjudication that the personal representative is incapacitated.

(2) Physical or mental incapacity rendering the personal representative incapable of the discharge of his or her duties.

(3) Failure to comply with any order of the court, unless the order has been superseded on appeal.

(4) Failure to account for the sale of property or to produce and exhibit the assets of the estate when so required.

(5) Wasting or maladministration of the estate.

(6) Failure to give bond or security for any purpose.

(7) Conviction of a felony.

(8) Insolvency of, or the appointment of a receiver or liquidator for, any corporate personal representative.

(9) Holding or acquiring conflicting or adverse interests against the estate that will or may interfere with the administration of the estate as a whole. This cause of removal shall not apply to the surviving spouse because of the exercise of the right to the elective share, family allowance, or exemptions, as provided elsewhere in this code.

(10) Revocation of the probate of the decedent’s will that authorized or designated the appointment of the personal representative.

(11) Removal of domicile from Florida, if domicile was a requirement of initial appointment.

(12) The personal representative was qualified to act at the time of appointment but is not now entitled to appointment.

What is a Conflict of Interest Under Florida Law?

A conflict of interest arises when a person or entity has competing interests or loyalties that could potentially interfere with their ability to act impartially and in the best interest of those they serve. This conflict can manifest in two main forms: direct and indirect conflicts of interest.

Direct Conflict of Interest

A direct conflict of interest is relatively straightforward and occurs when an individual or organization can directly benefit from a decision or action that is against the best interest of the entity they represent or serve. This conflict often involves a clear, tangible benefit, such as financial gain.

For instance, imagine a manager in a corporation who is also a part-owner of a supplier company. If they push to get their corporation to contract with their supplier, despite another supplier offering better prices or quality, this represents a direct conflict of interest. The manager stands to gain personally (through their supplier company’s profits) from a decision that may not be in the best interest of the corporation they work for.

Indirect Conflict of Interest

Indirect conflicts of interest are more subtle and often involve a third party. These conflicts occur when an individual or organization could potentially benefit, not directly, but indirectly, from a decision or action that is contrary to the best interest of the entity they serve.

For example, consider a doctor whose spouse works for a pharmaceutical company. If the doctor consistently prescribes drugs produced by their spouse’s company—even when equivalent or better alternatives are available—then the doctor could be said to have an indirect conflict of interest. While the doctor doesn’t directly gain from prescribing the drugs, their spouse (and by extension, their household) may benefit financially, creating an indirect conflict.

In both direct and indirect conflicts of interest, the key concern is whether the potential for personal gain may compromise the ability to act in the best interests of those being served. It’s crucial to manage these situations carefully to maintain trust and ensure fairness.

Understanding Conflict of Interest as a Ground for Removal

The linchpin in this discussion is Florida Statute § 733.504. This law lays the foundation for removing a personal representative, expressly stating that when there is an acquisition or holding of conflicting or adverse interests against the estate that might hinder its administration, removal of the representative is justified. A range of legal cases have backed this interpretation, offering additional clarity and context.

It’s not uncommon for conflicts of interest to arise in the process of administering an estate. For instance, when the personal representative holds assets of the estate, it creates a conflict, as highlighted in In re Estate of Bell, 573 So. 2d 57 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1990). In this case, the personal representative’s acquisition of certificates of deposit as estate assets mandated his removal, effectively making this case a cornerstone in interpreting Section 733.504(9) of the Florida Statutes.

In another case, In re Estate of Gainer, 579 So. 2d 739 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1991), a conflict emerged when the personal representative claimed an interest in two assets of the estate, resulting in the court ordering the representative’s removal.

The Role of the Probate Court and the Extent of Conflict

The probate court’s duty extends beyond just identifying a conflict of interest. It’s crucial to ascertain whether the personal representative can competently represent the interests of the estate. This responsibility was underscored in Vaughn v. Batchelder, 633 So. 2d 526 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1994), which ended with the removal of the representative due to an identified conflict of interest.

Not every conflict of interest leads to automatic removal, as detailed in In re Estate of Hammer, 499 So. 2d 853 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1987). This case dissected the circumstances under which a personal representative may be removed, making a distinction that the filing of an individual claim against an estate by a personal representative does not necessitate removal. Nonetheless, when the conflict significantly impacts the estate’s testamentary scheme, it necessitates action, such as removing the representative.

Moving Beyond Personal Representatives: Co-Trustees and Adverse Interests

Probate litigation also deals with analogous scenarios involving conflicts of interest. In Robinson v. Tootalian, 691 So. 2d 52 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997), the removal of a co-trustee due to conflicts and disagreements impeding the estate’s administration was addressed. This case resonates with the broader theme of maintaining the smooth operation of an estate, which can also be compromised by a personal representative with conflicting interests.

When the personal representative harbors interests adverse to the estate, the appointment of an administrator ad litem may be necessary. This was evidenced in Continental Nat. Bank v. Brill, 636 So. 2d 782 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1994), where the allocation of a settlement to the personal representative conflicted with her duty to maximize the estate’s allocation, leading to the appointment of an administrator ad litem.

Final Thoughts

From In re Estate of Bell to Continental Nat. Bank v. Brill, these cases consistently advocate for the removal of a personal representative due to a conflict of interest. While In re Estate of Gainer was overruled or reversed, the consensus remains that maintaining the integrity of the estate and ensuring fair administration takes precedence over conflicting interests. These principles continue to guide the complex journey of probate litigation in Florida.

If you believe that the Personal Representative of your Estate has a real or potential conflict of interest give me a call. We litigate Probate cases throughout the state of Florida.

-Brice Zoecklein, Esq.