Widow Awarded Attorney’s Fees In Action Against Estate

MAY 20, 2002 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 47

The probate process is often viewed as unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive. Most states (Arizona included) have vastly simplified probate proceedings, but they can still seem unduly burdensome. Of course, the whole point of having a court-run probate process is to ensure that all parties’ rights and interests are adequately protected; sometimes it can be expensive to accomplish that apparently simple goal.

When Milton Hoyt died in 1994 he left a surviving spouse, Jacqueline Hoyt. He also left a son from a previous marriage, Jeffrey Hoyt. His son filed the probate proceeding and was appointed as personal representative.

In Florida, where Milton Hoyt lived and died, a surviving spouse is entitled to a small “lump-sum family allowance”—even if left out of the decedent’s will altogether. Most states require payment of a larger share of the estate to a disinherited surviving spouse, but Mrs. Hoyt was clearly entitled to the relatively modest amount of $6,000 (in Arizona, incidentally, a surviving spouse is ordinarily entitled to at least $37,000 of the deceased spouse’s estate).

Mrs. Hoyt formally filed her request for the family allowance, but her stepson refused to agree that she was owed the money. She was required to go to court to establish her entitlement; after a trial in 1997 Jeffrey Hoyt was ordered to make the payment.

Despite the clear court order, Jeffrey Hoyt did not pay Mrs. Hoyt the $6,000 she was due. Her attorney filed requests with the court twice in 1998—four years after Mr. Hoyt’s death—and Jeffrey Hoyt was finally ordered to actually make the payments to his stepmother.

After the difficulty she had experienced in getting payment of the money due her Mrs. Hoyt asked the probate court to order her husband’s estate to pay her attorney’s fees as well. Though sympathetic, the probate judge pointed out that it is the general rule in American courts that attorney’s fees can not be collected by prevailing parties without a specific statute or contractual agreement. Mrs. Hoyt’s request for attorney’s fees was denied, and she appealed the denial.

The Florida Court of Appeals took another view of the probate proceedings. A substantial body of case law allows payment from a probate estate for attorney’s fees incurred in proceedings that benefit the estate. While Mrs. Hoyt’s request for payment of her allowances did not bring new money into the estate, the appellate court decided that they benefited the estate by forcing a recalcitrant personal representative to perform his duties. To make Mrs. Hoyt pay her own attorney’s fees, the court noted, would diminish or even defeat the purpose of providing her a small statutory allowance in the first place. Hoyt v. Hoyt, May 3, 2002.

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