March 12th, 2012
It seems like the Georgia appellate courts are on a little bit of a run when it comes to addressing the limited jurisdiction of Georgia’s probate courts. Interestingly enough, the latest opinion on limited probate court jurisdiction also involves a petition for year’s support.
In In re Mahmoodzadeh, the Georgia Court of Appeals explained how a probate court should handle an award of year’s support when title to the subject property is disputed. The case highlights that when it comes to petitions for year’s support, the available objections are extremely limited.
We’ll skip most of the background and procedural history for this case because it is long and tedious, but here’s a quick overview: Monica Mahmoodzadeh, the widow of Payam Mahmoodzadeh, filed a petition for year’s support seeking to set aside real property and funds in various money market accounts. In response, Renasant Bank and the decedent’s parents filed caveats in the probate court objecting to setting aside one of the accounts and the real property as year’s support, contending that these items were not part of the decedent’s estate. There was an amendment adding some additional property to the requested year’s support and there was an additional caveat.
So, what you have is a dispute over title to certain property. That should set off all sorts of alarms because probate courts in Georgia are courts of limited jurisdiction. In particular, they do not have jurisdiction over claims of title to property. Which, of course, the probate court stated numerous times on the record during a hearing on the petition for year’s support and the caveats. Nevertheless, the probate court allowed the hearing to continue by construing the objections by the parents and the bank to be based on the petition as a whole rather than focusing on the specific basis of the objections. After allowing the hearing to proceed, the probate court denied the petition for year’s support on the grounds that the widow failed to meet the burden of proof as to the amount required for her support. The Court of Appeals determined that in doing so, the probate court committed reversible error.
When a petition for year’s support is filed, it may be met with an objection. An objection, however, may simply call into question whether the amount requested is in excess of that to which the surviving spouse and children are entitled under the law or whether the applicants are in fact the surviving spouse and children of the deceased.
The objections here, however, fell outside the scope of an objection to a petition for year’s support. These objections were solely based on contentions that the relevant money-market account and real property should not be included in an award of year’s support because these items were not part of the decedent’s estate. Importantly, the parties did not object to the widow’s right to claim year’s support or to the amount she was claiming.
While probate courts do not have jurisdiction to adjudicate conflicting claims of title, a probate court may award as year’s support a decedent’s interest in property subject to a dispute. Enforcement of such an award requires a determination of interest and title be made by a court with jurisdiction over that issue.
Because the objections to the petition went to title, the probate court should not have allowed the hearing to proceed as to the amount necessary for the widow’s support. When an objection does not go to the issue of amount or right to year’s support, then the probate court is required to enter an order setting aside as year’s support the property applied for in the petition. By letting the hearing go forward, the probate court inappropriately placed upon the widow a burden of proof that was contrary to the law.