Trust and Estate

Chantalle Forgues
Assistant Professor of Business Law at
Plymouth State University

No. 2018-0136
February 1, 2019
Reversed and remanded.

  • Whether the circuit court probate division had exclusive jurisdiction over plaintiff’s tort and equity claims relating to the administration of an estate

The plaintiff in this case alleged that the defendant, who was the executor of a will to which both parties were beneficiaries, misrepresented the value of an estate asset. The plaintiff learned of the alleged misrepresentation approximately three years after the disposition of the asset at issue, and sued the defendant in superior court for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligence, and unjust enrichment.

The defendant filed several motions to dismiss plaintiff’s suit and to move it to the circuit court probate division. The defendant argued that all claims relating to the estate must be litigated in the probate division. Upon reconsideration of one of the defendant’s motions, the trial court found that the plaintiff’s case related to the estate and that the probative division had exclusive jurisdiction over the dispute because the parties had reached an agreement regarding the disposition of the asset at issue during the administration of the estate. Moreover, the plaintiff was suing the defendant in his capacity as the administrator of the estate.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed the trial court decision, holding that the superior court, as a court of general jurisdiction, was the proper forum to hear the parties’ dispute. The probate division is not a court of general jurisdiction; rather, its jurisdiction is limited by statute. According to the Court, there is no evidence that the legislature intended to expand the narrow jurisdiction of the probate division to tort and equity claims simply because the claims occurred during the administration of an estate.

The Court determined that the plaintiff’s claims did not fall within the narrow limits of the probate division’s exclusive jurisdiction using the DiGaetano jurisdictional analysis. Under this analysis, the critical inquiry involves the manner by which a claim relates to an estate, not whether a relationship simply exists. The Court explained that the determination of subject matter jurisdiction in this case first depended on whether there was a direct connection between the plaintiff’s claims and the composition, administration, sale, settlement, and final distribution of the estate; and second, depended on whether the connection related to the estate or will in a manner that mandates the probate court’s exclusive jurisdiction.

Here, the plaintiff’s claims did not require the interpretation of a will or trust, nor did they require an assessment of the estate’s administration or seek a redistribution of the estate’s assets. While the plaintiff’s actions might pertain to the parties’ settlement of their interests in the estate, the dispute did not relate to the manner by which the estate was settled. The plaintiff’s claims in tort and equity required fact-finding regarding the parties’ intent, representations to each other, and their knowledge of the asset at issue garnered before, during, and after the probate of the estate. As such, the plaintiff’s suit was against the defendant in his personal capacity for monetary damages, and not against the estate. Importantly, the plaintiff’s claims did not require the probate court’s expertise or jurisdiction.

In so finding, the Court dismissed the defendant’s argument that its decision would convert the superior court to an appellate court for the probate division, including providing jurisdiction several years after probate is closed. The Court explained that its decision would not permit the review of the probate division’s prior rulings and findings, or otherwise permit the reopening of stale probate claims. Rather, the Court concluded that it would be absurd to deprive an aggrieved beneficiary of a forum in which to pursue claims that occurred outside the strict time limits for probate actions where an executor has wrongfully liquidated, sold, or misappropriated estate assets.

 

Seth W. Greenblott (on the brief and orally) of Greenblott & O’Rourke, for the petitioner. Jason Bielagus (on the brief and orally) of Bielagus Law Offices, for the defendant.