In the case of Yergin v. Georgopolos, 217 So. 3d 155 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2017), Richard Yergin took out a life insurance policy on himself thirty-five years ago. Richard named his mother, Mary Georgopolos, as beneficiary. The policy was unknown by either family when Richard died in 1997. The money was unidentified when Richard’s estate was probated and remained unidentified until 2015.
Since the funds were unclaimed for fifteen years, the insurance company turned the forty-one-thousand-dollar annuity to the Florida Department of Financial Services. “Funds held or owing under any life or endowment insurance policy or annuity contract which has matured or terminated are presumed unclaimed if unclaimed for more than 5 years after the date of death of the insured, the annuitant, or the retained asset account holder ….” § 717.107(1), Fla. Stat. (2015). Glen Yergin, Richard’s half-brother, learned about the money in 2015 and petitioned to reopen Richard’s estate, appoint himself as the personal representative, and for a declaration that the insurance policy annuity: (1) was a failed transfer because Georgopolos was not Richard’s mother as stated on the policy; and (2) belonged as part of the estate property. Glen served the declaratory judgment petition on Mary Georgopolos.
Georgopolos made a claim for the annuity with the Financial Services Department and moved to dismiss the petition. The trial court granted Georgopolos’ petition. The issue on appeal is whether an estate that seeks to obtain money or property delivered to the Financial Services Department as unclaimed must first file a claim with the department, and exhaust administrative remedies, before it can file a lawsuit in the trial courts determining ownership of the property.
Richard contends that the circuit court must decide first, because Florida law gives it exclusive jurisdiction to determine whether property is part of an estate, Art. V, § 20(c)(3), Fla. Const.; § 86.011, Fla. Stat. (2015); id. § 733.105(1)(a). Moreover, our constitution and statues also give the financial services department jurisdiction to make determinations as to unclaimed property deposited in the state treasury, Art. IV, § 4(c); § 717.124(1), Fla. Stat. (2015).
The Legislature reconciled these provisions, found in section 717.1242(1), stating as follows: “consistent with [the] legislative intent” to give jurisdiction to the circuit court over the settlement of estates, and jurisdiction to the financial services department over unclaimed property, “any estate or beneficiary … of an estate seeking to obtain property paid or delivered to the department … must file a claim with the department.” § 717.1242(1), Fla. Stat. (2015). The Legislature then laid out an extensive administrative procedure for seeking unclaimed property. The department must decide on a claim within ninety days (with some exceptions), id. § 717.124(1)(c), and has a method for determining the priority of conflicting claims, id. § 717.1241. “In rendering a determination regarding the merits of an unclaimed property claim, the
epartment shall rely on the applicable statutory, regulatory, common, and case law.” Id. § 717.1244. And a person “aggrieved” by the department’s decision may petition for an administrative hearing under the Florida Administrative Procedures Act. Id. § 717.126(1).
Only after a claimant has exhausted these administrative procedures may she seek relief in the circuit court. See Atwater v. Citibank Fed. Sav. Bank, 96 So.3d 1000, 1001 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012). Here in our case, Glen first had to file a claim for the insurance annuity with the Financial Services Department pursuant to section 717.1242(1), and exhaust his remedies under chapter 717 and 120. After these steps have been taken, Richard is permitted to pursue his legal remedies in the circuit court. It is undisputed that Glen did not file a claim with the department, the trial court correctly dismissed his petition for declaratory relief.
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