Posted on March 30, 2015

Earlier this month, in Ciungu v. Bulea, 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 3865 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015), the First District Court of Appeal, “1st DCA”, addressed issues pertaining to a probate court’s jurisdiction over real property in another country. Decedents, John and Victoria Ciungu, died intestate owning property in both Florida and Romania. John died in February 2003 and Victoria, his wife, died in April 2003. Their son, Ioan Ciungo, (“Appellant”) filed Petitions for Administration in the Florida estates and was appointed as personal representative in each estate.  Appellant filed a probate inventory and served it upon his sister, Melania Bulea, (“Appellee”) and no objections were filed directed thereto. The opinion doesn’t clarify in which estate the inventory was filed. The probate court in February 2010 entered an order requiring Appellant as personal representative to issue deeds conveying the Romanian real property to his sister, Appellee, and himself as tenants in common, but that Appellee’s share was to be held in a restricted account until she fulfilled her obligation to show that legal title to the Romanian properties was properly vested in those persons entitled to receive the properties under Romanian law. Appellant and Appellee were involved in protracted litigation, and it is undisputed that the probate court had jurisdiction over Appellee. Appellee filed a motion to partially vacate the February 2010 order pertaining to the Romanian property approximately 14 months after the entry of the order, claiming that the probate court’s order was void as it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the Romanian property.  At the hearing on the motion to vacate and on Appellee’s request to add two parcels of real property located in Florida to the probate inventory, the probate court entered an order addressing the above issues. It found that the plain meaning of the quit claim deeds from the Appellant conveying two parcels of real property to the decedents was to be given effect. The quit claim deeds conveyed the real property to Appellant’s parents with rights of survivorship between them, and reserving a life estate unto the Appellant. The probate court authorized inclusion of the two additional parcels of real property in the assets of the estate. As to the Romanian real property, the probate court vacated its order pertaining to the Romanian real property. The probate court found the February 2010 order in effect conditions resolution of the Florida estate upon the resolution of the Romanian estate. It ruled that it didn’t have jurisdiction over the estate in Romania or the authority to compel administration of the Romanian estate.

The 1st DCA affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court did not find anything in the Florida Probate Code, Probate Rules or case law which would preclude the addition of property to the inventory of an open estate. Rather, the Court noted that Section 733.604(2), Fla. Stat. and Fla. Prob. R. 5.340(c) contemplate amended and supplemental inventories and subsequent administration after an estate has been closed. As such, the Court did not find error in the trial court’s inclusion of the two parcels of Florida real property in the inventory. The District Court also agreed with the trial court’s interpretation of the quit claim deeds, as they were clear in that Appellant was the grantor and conveyed the property to his parents, as grantees, with the right of survivorship between the grantees and reserving unto himself a life estate in the property. Appellant argued that he reserved to himself the right of survivorship, thus becoming a grantor and grantee, by reserving the life estate. The 1st DCA disagreed and found the Appellant’s position was inconsistent with the plain language in the deeds. When the Decedent’s father died, his wife held the remainder interest subject to Appellant’s life estate. Upon Victoria’s death, her undivided remainder interest passed by intestacy to her children as tenants in common.

Appellant argued that Appellee’s motion to vacate under Fla. R. Civ. P 1.540 was untimely because it was filed more than one year after the 2010 order was entered, and that because the probate court had personal jurisdiction over Appellee its 2010 order was thus not void for lack of jurisdiction. The 1st DCA held that a motion to void an order for lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be filed “within a reasonable time” and “because the mere passage of time cannot make a void judgment valid, a motion to vacate a judgment as void may ‘reasonably’ be filed many years after the judgment was entered.” It ruled that essentially motions filed under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.540(b) asserting lack of jurisdiction may be filed at any time. The 1st DCA also held that the probate court’s order pertaining to the Romanian property was not void for lack of jurisdiction. It observed that a court which has obtained in personam jurisdiction may order a party to act on property outside the court’s jurisdiction “provided that the court does not directly affect the title to the property while it remains in the foreign jurisdiction.” Noting that the probate court had acquired personal jurisdiction over Appellee, it therefore had the authority to direct her to effect the distribution of the Romanian property even though outside of the probate court’s geographic jurisdiction.

If you or anyone you know is in need of representation in actions involving Guardianship, Probate and/or Trust Disputes, or questions pertaining to such proceedings, please contact The Law Offices of Glenn M. Mednick, P.L., at (954) 315-1154 or gmednick@mednicklawgroup.com.

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