Temporary Injunctions in Estate, Trust and Guardianship Litigation
September 12, 2019
Florida courts use the extraordinary remedy of imposing temporary injunctions only sparingly, and grant temporary injunctions only when the allegations proof of the facts support the entry of this relief.
“A party seeking a temporary injunction must prove: (1) that it will suffer irreparable harm unless the status quo is maintained; (2) that it has no adequate remedy at law; (3) that it has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (4) that a temporary injunction will serve the public interest.” Jouvence Ctr. for Advanced Health, LLC v. Jouvence Rejuvenation Ctrs., LLC, 14 So. 3d 1097, 1099 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) (citation omitted). “The party must also establish that it has a clear legal right to the relief sought. Finally, a trial court must make ‘clear, definite, and unequivocally sufficient factual findings’ supporting each of the required elements before entering an injunction.” Id. (citation omitted). “[A] trial court reversibly errs when an order fails to make specific findings for each of the elements.” Wade v. Brown, 928 So. 2d 1260, 1262 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006) (citation omitted). Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.610(c) provides that “[e]very injunction shall specify the reasons for entry.”
A failure to specify the reasons for its entry is reversable error on the part of the trial court. McKeegan v. Ernst, 84 So.3d 1229 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012)(finding, in pertinent part, that the trial court’s order was facially deficient because it failed to make the requisite findings for each of the required elements before entering the injunction).
Although circuit courts do have exclusive jurisdiction over probate, trust and guardianship matters, the governing statutes do not set forth these procedures. This is an adversary proceeding, and at least in the probate world, would require formal notice to be served and the proceedings to be conducted similar to civil suits. Fla. Prob. R. 5.025. This means that the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure would then apply to the proceeding. Notably, Rule 5.025 does not set forth an exclusive list of proceedings that are adversary – rather, any proceeding may be declared adversary by serving a separate notice declaring the matter to be adversary in nature.
Probate and Guardianship Proceedings
The probate court has the inherent jurisdiction to monitor the administration of an estate to preserve and protect the assets for the benefit of the estate’s beneficiaries. Conger v. Conger, 414 So. 2d 230, 235 (Fla. 3d DCA 1982); In re Estate of Barsanti, 773 So. 2d 1206, 1208 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000). The Barsanti court explained that the probate court does have the authority to freeze assets by way of a temporary injunction, when there is a dispute over the ultimate ownership of the assets claimed to be part of an estate. Id. at 1208. The court explained it was part of a personal representative’s job to preserve the estate’s assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Id. at 1206.
Similarly, guardianship cases also fall within the circuit court’s purview, in that the court is under a duty to protect the guardianship’s assets. See Ripoll v. Comprehensive Personal Care Services, Inc., 963 So. 2d 789 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007).
In Ripoll, the appeal arose from an adversary action within a guardianship proceeding. IT was alleged that the successor guardian improperly took money from the guardianship to purchase a home for her own use. The trial court ordered the successor guardian not to mortgage or otherwise encumber the home. After the successor guardian, together with her husband, subsequently executed a mortgage on the home just 2 days later, the guardian of the property sought to remove her. The trial court froze the successor guardian’s assets, and the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed, determining that the trial court was well within its discretion to freeze the assets. The appellate court explained that a circuit court has the “inherent authority to monitor a guardianship and to take action it deems necessary to preserve the assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries.” Id. at 790 (citation omitted). The trial court may issue temporary injunctions to freeze assets claimed to belong to a guardianship, even if the ultimate ownership of the assets may be subject to dispute. Id. (further citation omitted).
The traditional standards for imposing injunctions or freeze orders apply in trust litigation matters, yet the trust code does not set forth the procedures on how to obtain an injunction.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion in McKeegan v. Ernst, 84 So.3d 1229 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012) was one of the first decisions along these lines. In McKeegan, Ms. McKeegan challenged the entry of an ex parte temporary injunction order imposed on a trust bank account. Ms. McKeegan argued that the temporary injunction order was facially deficient because it did not include sufficient factual findings to support each prong of the four-part injunction test. The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with Ms. McKeegan and reversed the trial court.
In explaining its decision, the trial court stated that “[a] party seeking a temporary injunction must prove: (1) that it will suffer irreparable harm unless the status quo is maintained; (2) that it has no adequate remedy at law; (3) that it has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (4) that a temporary injunction will serve the public interest.” Jouvence Ctr. for Advanced Health, LLC v. Jouvence Rejuvenation Ctrs., LLC, 14 So. 3d 1097, 1099 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) (citation omitted). “The party must also establish that it has a clear legal right to the relief sought. Finally, a trial court must make ‘clear, definite, and unequivocally sufficient factual findings’ supporting each of the required elements before entering an injunction.” Id. (citation omitted). “[A] trial court reversibly errs when an order fails to make specific findings for each of the elements.” Wade v. Brown, 928 So. 2d 1260, 1262 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006) (citation omitted). Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.610(c) provides that “[e]very injunction shall specify the reasons for entry.” The trial court’s order did not include the specifics.
In addition, Ms. McKeegan argued that her due process rights to notice and an opportunity to be heard were violated, based on the failure to establish that notice was not required. Because this was an ex parte temporary injunction, the appellees were required to certify in writing of the efforts made to give notice or the reasons why notice should not be required, including the specifics on the irreparable harm that would occur if a temporary injunction was not imposed. The Fourth District agreed with this also in reversing the trial court.
Subsequent to the McKeegan decision, other Florida district courts of appeal have reinforced these same concepts.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal reviewed a similar issue, but the issue was more as to seeking timely appellate review of the correct court order. In McKinnon v. Weinstein, 125 So. 3d 1014 (Fla. 5th DCA 2013), the freeze order was also facially deficient. The appellate court explained that “the trial court issued an order essentially freezing all Trust assets indefinitely, until it could conduct further proceedings to sort out the parties’ claims. The order, which both parties characterize as a temporary injunction, does not contain any findings that would support an injunction, and does not require the posting of any type of bond. And, although neither party requested the injunction, neither party appealed from the order.”
Later, Ms. McKinnon moved the trial court to set aside the injunction order, asserting that it was improperly entered. The trial court denied this request and from there, Ms. McKinnon appealed. The appellate court explained that because Ms. McKinnon did not appeal the original injunction order, it could not consider the propriety of its entry. Rather, the appellate court affirmed the trial court but recognized the “questionable nature of the original injunction order and the obvious problems that freezing all Trust assets could pose”.
The Third District Court of Appeal reviewed an order freezing trust assets in 2017, in their decision in Landau v. Landau, 230 So. 3d 127, 129-130 (Fla. 3d DCA 2017). In Landau, the Third District treated the trial court’s order as an injunction, such that it was an attempt to preserve estate and trust assets for the beneficiaries. However, this case did not set forth the procedures for obtaining an injunction either.
Although the Fourth District Court of Appeal examined the McKeegan decision last year, it was in connection with a probate case and assets in a brokerage account, Dubner v. Ferraro, 242, So. 3d 444 (Fla. 4th DCA 2018). The appellate court reiterated the requirements of the rule, that an order must specify in detail the reasons for the acts being restrained, in addition to the order addressing the elements of injunctive relief. The trial court must explain the basis for its finding as to each of the four parts of the standard, and mere conclusions and re-stating the standards are insufficient under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.610(c).
If faced with an order that freezes assets, such as those titled in the name of a trust, or even those subject to dispute in an estate or guardianship matter, it is imperative that you seek experienced guardianship, estate, and trust counsel to review the propriety of the order and to seek relief in timely fashion if necessary. Alternately, if you are looking to freeze assets that are part of an estate, a guardianship, or a trust, the finite rules must be followed to impose a temporary injunction or freeze, to maintain the status quo, for the benefit of the ultimate beneficiaries. A well-experienced attorney in these areas of the law should be consulted on these details and issues without delay.