United States: Sitting Pretty In Probate - What Sandstead Means For Probate Jurisdiction

This article looks at subject matter jurisdiction in probate court. It focuses on the impact the Colorado Supreme Court's recent decision in Sandstead-Corona v. Sandstead.

Probate litigation often involves vexing disputes regarding jurisdiction, 1 standing,2 and the scope and exercise of equitable powers and judicial discretion.3 Unfortunately, certainty and predictability have not always been the hallmarks of such disputes.

Issues involving jurisdiction are crucial because, unlike district courts with plenary powers, courts "sitting in probate" are constrained by limited subject matter jurisdiction.4 Notably, litigants must understand that a probate court judgment exceeding the court's jurisdiction remains subject to attack.

This article considers subject matter jurisdiction in probate court, with an emphasis on the Colorado Supreme Court's recent decision in Sandstead-Corona v. Sandstead, which clarifies subject matter jurisdiction.5

Sandstead-Corona v. Sandstead

In spring 2018, the Colorado Supreme Court threw its shoulder into the probate arena with an important decision. In Sandstead,6 the Court extended probate jurisdiction by upholding the use of an implied trust for a multiparty bank account that held farm sales proceeds.

By recognizing the "logical relationship" between the accounts and the proper and orderly administration of the probate estate, the Sandstead Court concluded that the trial court sitting in probate had the requisite subject matter jurisdiction.7 The Court brushed aside the assertion that the probate court lacked jurisdiction because the accounts were "not part of the probate estate."8

The Sandstead Nexus

Sandstead rests on the fundamental conclusion that there is a necessary nexus or connection between nonprobate bank accounts and probate administration. Sandstead's conclusion was based on competent evidence that the decedent intended for farm sales proceeds to be handled as part of her dispositive plan.9 This evidence allowed the Court to find that the action satisfied CRS § 13-9-103(3), which provides that a probate court "has jurisdiction to determine every legal and equitable question arising in connection with decedents' . . . estates."10

The phrase "in connection with" "contemplates a logical and contextual relationship or association exhibiting 'coherence' or 'continuity.'"11 Applying this definition in the context of a probate court's jurisdiction, prior decisions of the Colorado Court of Appeals had interpreted the phrase "in connection with" to authorize the court to resolve disputes logically related to an estate, even when the disputes involved nonprobate assets.12 Before Sandstead, only divisions of the Colorado Court of Appeals had addressed the scope of this jurisdictional provision, and thus whether the probate court possessed the necessary power to impose equitable remedies.13 Sandstead provides much needed guidance on this important jurisdictional concept.

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1. Difficult probate jurisdictional questions are not reserved to state courts. Perplexing jurisdictional problems are found in the law of federal jurisdiction and the scope of the judicially created "probate exception." See Dragan v. Miller, 679 F.2d 712, 713 (7th Cir. 1982) (Posner, J.) (describing the federal jurisdiction probate exception as "one of the most mysterious and esoteric branches of the law of federal jurisdiction"); Pfander and Downey, "In Search of the Probate Exception," 67 Vand. L. Rev. 1533 (2014).

2. Baker v. Wood, Ris & Hames, 364 P.3d 872 (Colo. 2016) (dissatisfied estate beneficiaries do not have standing to bring legal malpractice or contract claims against drafting attorney).

3. Beren v. Beren, 349 P.3d 233 (Colo. 2015). See also In re Estate of Leslie, 886 P.2d 284, 287 (Colo.App. 1994) (affirming assessment of administrative costs and fees incurred by the estate against a particular party despite the lack of a specific provision authorizing such action). Indeed, the Probate Code is "equitable in nature." Id. 4. See CRS § 13-9-103.

5. Sandstead-Corona v. Sandstead, 415 P.3d 310 (Colo. 2018).

6. Id.

7. Id. at 318.

8. Id. at 317.

9. Id. at 314.

10. Id.

11. See People v. Baer, 973 P.2d 1225, 1230 (Colo. 1999).

12. See In re Estate of Owens, 413 P.3d 255 (concluding the district court sitting in probate had jurisdiction to impose a constructive trust on funds in payable-on-death bank accounts because resolving the issues surrounding those assets was essential to the proper and orderly administration of the decedent's estate).

13. See also In re Estate of Murphy, 195 P.3d 1147, 1151–52 (Colo.App. 2008) (concluding the probate court had jurisdiction over a party's petition to partition certain real property, notwithstanding the fact that the parties disputed whether the property at issue was property of the estate, because resolving the questions of title presented by the petition was essential to the proper, orderly distribution of estate property).

Previously published in Colorado Lawyer - January 2019

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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