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Subject Matter Jurisdiction – Administration of Probate Estate – Declaratory Judgment

Suggs v. Gray, [Ms. 1161118, May 4, 2018] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2018).  This decision by Justice Sellers (Stuart, C.J., and Bolin, Parker, Main, and Wise, JJ., concur; Shaw, Bryan, and Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result in part and dissent in part) affirms in part and vacates in part a judgment of the Montgomery Circuit Court in a declaratory judgment action.  A dispute arose between the estate of Frances W. Gray (the wife) and the estate of Floyd H. Gray, (the husband), as to the ownership of the proceeds from the sale of the couple’s residence.  The proceeds were being held in an attorney’s trust account.  Ms. *3.  The administration of both estates was pending in the Montgomery Circuit Court.

On appeal, the personal representative of the wife’s estate asserted that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the declaratory judgment action because the administration of both estates was pending in the probate court at the time the declaratory judgment action was filed.  Ms. *10.  The Court noted that generally probate courts lack equitable jurisdiction such that “the probate court did not have jurisdiction to fashion an equitable remedy concerning the assets being held in the law firm’s trust account.”  Ms. *11.

The Court also rejected any notion that because the administration of the estates could have been removed to circuit court, a declaratory judgment action was improper.  “The existence of another adequate remedy does not preclude a judgment for declaratory relief in cases where it is appropriate.”  Ms. *13, quoting Rule 57, Ala. R. Civ. P.

In regard to the circuit court’s declaratory judgment concerning the ownership of certificates of deposit and a diamond necklace, the Court held that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.  The Court explained that “[u]sing the declaratory-judgment action to expand the jurisdiction of the circuit court to encompass all the assets of the estates was improper.  And, any attempt to have the circuit court consider other issues related to the administration of the estates, absent following the statutory provisions for removal, does not confer jurisdiction on the circuit court, and actions such as those taken in the case are, thus, void.”  Ms. *15.

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