Q: I am trying to take care of my son’s father’s estate in a small north Florida town. He had a hand-written will designating me as the personal representative, but with only one witness signature.
He was never married but had two illegitimate children, my son and a daughter from another woman. This other woman lives in this small town.
All was going well until the other woman would not agree to a 50/50 division of the estate. Not to toot my own horn, but after handling two other estates within the past three years, I was the one who did everything to get the estate this far.
We went to court and the judge treated me like a city slicker and made the daughter the personal representative for the estate. My attorney proved in court she thwarted every effort to settle the estate and she proved this woman was reckless and irresponsible. But her husband’s father is hunting buddies with the judge. One year after the death, she still has not even filed an official inventory of the estate with the court.
Is there some way to remove what I consider to be a dishonest judge from a case he has mishandled? Also, is there a way for the children’s interest in the property to be protected from anyone living on the property due to liability issues?
A: The quick answer to your question is that you can file a motion to have the judge withdraw from the case if there is a conflict of interest or if there is any other valid reason for a judge to be taken off the case.
If a judge fails to consider the motion, you can bring the motion before another judge in the jurisdiction or move for appellate review of the order of denial. But getting to that point is getting ahead of ourselves and may not be the right way to do things.
While your circumstances are somewhat unique, it seems you have a contested estate and the legal wheels take time to spin in small towns and large cities.
From your question it appears that the handwritten will was probably not valid. You imply that it had only one witness to the will. Some states require two witnesses to sign a will and still others require three. If the will was not valid, the judge would have discretion in deciding who to appoint to handle the affairs of the estate.
The person the judge appointed lives in the town in which the person that died lived, and where most of the assets are located. That information alone may be enough to justify naming the other woman to handle the estate rather than you. The judge may have determined that you live out of state and may not have the same contacts with the family and estate that she has. While she may not be as competent as you, the judge probably has wide latitude in deciding how to handle the estate. That in and of itself would probably not be sufficient grounds to have the judge removed.
If the other woman is in fact reckless and irresponsible, you have the right to have the judge reconsider his order to appoint her and to designate somebody else to take care of the estate. But there would be no guaranty that you would get appointed. It could be a local trust officer of the bank, who would then charge the estate for his or her time and costs.
While it seems that you want to, and should be, appointed, it doesn’t seem that you would have a legal right to be appointed from the facts that you described.
While it may be hard, you may be placed in a situation of having to work with this other woman to get the affairs of the estate handled and settled. While she may take you up on your offer to make peace and work with her to get things done, she may decide to ignore you. If she ignores you, the only thing that you will be able to do is make sure that the estate assets do not get misspent and that she reports to the court the assets of the estate and proper disposition of all of the assets.
Sometimes the wheels of justice don’t work the way you would like and sometimes the system doesn’t lead to the results you would like. But you’ll have to work with the system we have in the best way you can to make sure there is a just result.
Insofar as liability issues with property that was left behind, you should make sure that the other woman purchases insurance for the real estate involved just in case there is a casualty or someone is injured on the properties. An uninsured casualty or an injury sustained by someone at one of the homes could wipe out any money left in the estate.
Aug. 21, 2008.
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