The Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion in Ex parte Skelton is a small masterclass on civil procedure. The court turned a messy family dispute involving a family trust and allegations of malfeasance into delightfully boring treatise on standing, abatement, and the special rules of Jefferson County Probate Court.
Last month the same court emphasized the importance of formalities in a probate case improperly removed to circuit court. Here the fight was between two ongoing cases in two different courts over the same thing, one in probate court the other in circuit court. In Ex parte Skelton the last in a line of trust beneficiaries had passed away, and the trust was overdue for dissolution and distribution of its remaining assets. To wind up the trust and distribute the assets two competing branches of the family filed competing cases to address the dissolution – one in probate, the other in circuit court.
Ultimately, the court ruled for the winner of the race to the courthouse; the first to file won. Along the way to ruling for the prevailing party the court again asked the lawyers of litigants to stop referring to “standing” unless they really mean standing; it stated the obvious – you can’t have two simultaneous cases about the same thing; and it dipped a toe into the mysterious special rules of Jefferson County Probate Court.
Call it Real Party in Interest – Not Standing
The Alabama Supreme Court really doesn’t want you to refer to standing unless its in a case against the government. Where it’s a case between two private parties, “standing” isn’t an issue. Indeed where a party alleges that the other lacks standing – essentially that they lack the authority to bring the lawsuit – they generally mean that they are not the “real party in interest.” And the Court would prefer that you call it that.
Two Cases Can’t Occupy the Same Space at the Same Time
Here both the circuit court and the probate case sought to wind up and terminate the trust, then distribute the assets. Not surprisingly that wasn’t going to work. Also unsurprisingly the Supreme Court kicked the second case and kept the first. In a race to the courthouse, the first to file often wins.
Jefferson County Probate is a Lot Like Circuit Court
One big reason a wing of the family had filed in circuit court was to contest how the now defunct trust had been administered by its last, now deceased, trustee. Indeed they had filed claims of breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, fraud, and other claims which would need to be addressed in the winding down of the trust. Typically those types of claim wouldn’t best be addressed in probate – if addressed in probate at all – but since Jefferson County Probate is a super-Probate, circuit-like court the extraneous claims were of no consequence. Indeed, per the Court, they may have been compulsory counterclaims that had to be asserted in the probate case, if at all.