If a circuit court acts like it has taken a case from the probate court, hears evidence and issues orders, but fails to issue an order authorizing itself to take the case, the Alabama Supreme Court says the circuit court hasn’t yet taken the case. In Alabama the process for probating a will thereby beginning the estate administration process must begin in Probate Court. Most cases remain in probate court through the final distributions of assets to heirs and the closing of the estate. However, estate administration need not remain in probate court. Indeed, where heirs or potential heirs are at odds the case is frequently removed to circuit court. However, as the Alabama Supreme Court has again reiterated in Estate of Williams, the process of moving an estate from probate to circuit court is fraught with the perils of hyper-technicalities.
Removal from Probate to Circuit Court
There are many reasons to remove an estate administration from probate to circuit court: family dispute, uncertainty, complex issues of distribution, the need for discovery, and more. The commonality in removal are complexity and matters of law that the probate court is not suited to address. The probate court functions best as an administrative arm of the county where it resides. But its powers are limited and its judges are infrequently lawyers. As a result, while the overwhelming majority of estates are competently and efficiently opened, administered, and closed in probate court, once conflict arises it is common to seek removal to the local circuit court.
There are in essence two times when a probate court can be removed, one is in the event of a will contest, and the second is in the event of some dispute over how the estate is being administered (like a dispute over who the personal representative, the quality of their performance, or how they intend to distribute assets). The recent Alabama Supreme Court case, Estate of Williams, involved a dispute over the administration of an estate where the will had already been admitted to probate and a personal representative (the decedent’s wife) appointed. In this case there were plenty of good reasons to remove the case to circuit court, chief among them the heirs were at odds about how to distribute assets and the will contained a provision that vastly complicated how the estate assets would be distributed. (The decent was owner or part owner of a company and instead of having the business sold, or having it operate as before, the decent sought to distribute shares amongst the heirs and sought to control – from beyond the grave – who got paid from the business and how much.)
Circuit Court Must Formally Take Jurisdiction
The removal from probate to circuit court was in 2015, however the Alabama Supreme Court issued an decision saying work of the court, the lawyers, and their clients was all for naught. Although the probate court issued an order transferring the case, and although the circuit court acted as if it had taken the case, the circuit court failed to issue an order stating and authorizing itself to do so and therefore all the circuit court’s orders – including the one that was the subject of this appeal, were void. The circuit court must actually enter an order that it has subject matter jurisdiction and is taking the case – it can’t just act like it or do so implicitly.
Read the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion here and contact Browne House Law with questions about how to administer an estate that complies with the strict formalities of the courts.