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Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art: one of many philanthropic endeavors of the late Ruth Perelman.

This is a story about Ruth Perelman who executed a Last Will and Testament in 2010 and died in July 2011 leaving two sons, Jeffrey and Ronald. A few weeks ago, the Fourth District Court of Appeals here in Florida made national news when it published its decision about where the late Ruth Perelman’s estate would be probated. The decision is a lesson in Florida probate law that every Floridian could benefit from knowing if they own property in another state besides Florida.

Here’s the Ruth Perelman Probate Story.

Jeffrey Perelman and his father, Raymond Perelman, were on opposing sides in the Florida probate appeal.  This was a big case, not just because of the legal nuances being argued and decided but also because of the size of the estate itself: the Perelmans are a billionaire family, known for their charitable endeavors. (Read Ruth Perelman’s 2011 obituary here.)

Mrs. Perelman’s 2010 Will did not name her husband Raymond as her executor and personal representative of her estate; instead, Ruth named her son Jeffrey. Ruth died at the age of 90 years in Pennsylvania, only 2 months after she and Raymond had made a $225,000,000 donation to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (she died at their hospital).

Jeffrey, as personal representative under the Ruth Perelman 2010 Will, filed his mother’s Will in the Pennsylvania probate court. Two weeks later, his father and recent widower Raymond Perelman filed to probate the late Ruth Perelman’s estate in Florida based upon her earlier 1991 Last Will and Testament.

Father and son were adversaries at this point: Raymond pointing his finger at Jeffrey, accusing the son of manipulating documentation in order to establish his mother’s legal domicile as Pennsylvania in order to file for probate in Pennsylvania and not Florida. Specifically, dad said son had forged information on the death certificate itself in order to support his legal maneuvering in Pennsylvania.

The Death Certificate Dispute

Raymond Perelman, wanting a Florida probate, argued to a Montgomery County District Attorney that his son had worked with a funeral director to alter the primary residence on Ruth Perelman’s death certificate from Palm Beach, Florida, to another residence they owned in Pennsylvania. According to Raymond Perelman, he and his wife lived in Palm Beach as their primary residence; thus, Florida was her domicile when she died. Mr. Perelman alleged that his own son acted illegally just to get his mother’s Will into a Pennsylvania court.

Son Jeffrey countered that his father was simply upset that Mom had chosen son over dad regarding administrating her estate and that nothing illegal had happened here.

Florida vs. Pennsylvania – Which State Has Probate When There are Homes in Two States?

The issue became which state would handle this probate matter when the decedent had homes in two states. Which probate court should adjudicate the dispute? The Fourth District Court of Appeals here in Florida decided the case should go back up to Pennsylvania because of the following:

1. Florida determined that the Pennsylvania court had priority because Raymond had filed first — 13 days before his dad filed his probate petition.  Pennsylvania was held to be the state that had first exercised its jurisdiction.

Under Florida’s priority test, not only was the paperwork filed in Pennsylvania first, that court actually took some action before any Florida court had done so. From their opinion:

Here, Pennsylvania was the first state to exercise jurisdiction. We conclude that Pennsylvania first exercised jurisdiction on August 12, 2011, when the Register of Wills issued a notice to Raymond’s counsel stating that Ruth’s 2010 Will would be probated “without further notice to you” unless Raymond filed a formal caveat. The notice in this case clearly stated that relief would be granted unless Raymond filed a formal caveat. Therefore, following the Second District’s reasoning in Morrison, the Register’s notice indicated that “the ball [was] rolling” in Philadelphia, twelve days before Raymond filed his Florida petition on August 24, 2011.

2. Was there any way that Florida could have probated this case? Yes, if there had been evidence of “extraordinary circumstances.”

In situations like these, where two states are involved, there are often complicated fact patterns, particularly when the estates are large in assets and monetary value. Just because another state probate court performed some action in a probate matter there does not mean that the State of Florida will automatically tip its hat to that state’s jurisdiction and either stay or dismiss the Florida probate proceeding. If the Florida probate proponent can introduce admissible evidence that there are “extraordinary circumstances” to probate the estate in Florida, then Florida will do so.

However, this evidence was not shown in the Perelman matter. From the Florida opinion:

Having concluded that Pennsylvania was the first state to exercise jurisdiction, we next consider whether the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to stay Raymond’s petition in Florida. The trial court’s order simply denied the motion to stay and did not make any finding of extraordinary circumstances that would justify refusing to apply the principle of priority as a matter of comity. Nor did Raymond make any showing that the Pennsylvania proceeding would cause undue delay. All he offered in this regard was speculation. The mere fact that Pennsylvania allows for the possibility of a de novo proceeding in the Orphans’ Court does not, without more, establish undue delay.

While Raymond argues that this case is controlled by Parker v. Estate of Bealer, 890 So.2d 508, 512 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005), we find that Parker is distinguishable. There, although the Maryland proceeding was filed first, the Maryland probate court had never admitted the will to probate, no probate proceedings in Maryland had begun, estate administration had been ongoing for six months in Florida, and significant adverse tax consequences would have occurred if the will was probated in Maryland. The extraordinary circumstances in Parker simply are not present in this case.

Accordingly, we reverse the final judgment and the order on domicile, and remand for the trial court to issue a stay pending the resolution of the Pennsylvania probate proceeding.

Bottom line: When someone dies and there is the possibility of probate in either Florida or another state in the United States, then where the decedent’s estate will ultimately be probated may rest on a “rush to the courthouse” decision (to meet that first requirement).  However, Florida probate courts will also be amenable to considering “extraordinary circumstances” in determining where a probate should occur, (for example, tax consequences), if facts are introduced into evidence to support this consideration.