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Alabama Uniform Trust Code/Jurisdiction of Circuit and Probate Courts

Thomas John Martin v. Sheila Martin, etc., [Ms. 1181002, Dec. 18, 2020] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2020). The Court (Mitchell, J.; Parker, C.J., and Bolin, Wise, and Stewart, JJ., concur; Sellers and Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result; Shaw and Bryan, JJ., dissent) reverses a judgment of the Colbert County Circuit Court dismissing a declaratory-judgment action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Because the Court determines that the Colbert County Circuit Court has subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to §19-3B-203(a) over cases “brought by a trustee or beneficiary concerning the administration of a trust,” and because the Colbert County Probate Court had not been granted “statutory equitable jurisdiction” and was therefore precluded from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s complaint for a declaratory judgment as a beneficiary claiming under a trust by §19-3B-203(b), the Colbert County Circuit Court erred in dismissing plaintiff’s declaratory-judgment action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Court explains:

Circuit courts have subject-matter jurisdiction over equitable matters that “extend[s] ... [t]o all civil actions in which a plain and adequate remedy is not provided in the other judicial tribunals.: §12-11-31(1), Ala. Code 1975. By contrast, the subject-matter jurisdiction of probate courts “is limited to the matters submitted to it by statute.” Wallace v. State, 507 So. 2d 466, 468 (Ala. 1987). Section 12-13-1, Ala. Code 1975, vests probate courts with original and general jurisdiction over controversies involving the administration of a decedent’s estate. See §12-13-1(b)(3); Suggs v. Gray, 265 So. 3d 226, 230 (Ala. 2018). As a court of law, the probate court “‘generally does not possess jurisdiction to determine equitable issues.’” Suggs, 265 So. 3d at 230 (quoting Lappan v. Lovette, 577 So. 2d 893, 896 (Ala. 1991)).

Currently, only five Alabama probate courts may exercise equitable jurisdiction. See Segrest v. Segrest, [Ms. 1190676, December 4, 2020] ___ So. 3d ___ (Ala. 2020). The Jefferson Probate Court and the Mobile Probate Court share equity jurisdiction with circuit courts by local act. See Act. No. 974, Ala. Acts 1961; Act No. 1144, Ala. Acts 1971. And the Shelby, Pickens, and Houston Probate Courts may share equity jurisdiction with circuit courts by local constitutional amendments. See Ala. Const. 1901, Local Amendments, Shelby County, §4 (proposed by Amend. No. 758); Ala. Const. 1901, Local Amendments, Pickens County, §6.10 (proposed by Amend. No. 836); Ala. Const. 1901, Local Amendments, Houston County, §3.50 (proposed by Amend. No. 898). Thus, while all probate courts have subject-matter jurisdiction over general matters of estate administration, only five probate courts in the State have jurisdiction to hear equitable matters and to fashion equitable remedies. See Suggs, 265 So. 3d at 230-31.

With trusts, the Alabama Uniform Trust Code, §19-3B-101 et seq., Ala. Code 1975 (“the Alabama UTC”), provides the statutory framework for subject-matter jurisdiction as between circuit and probate courts:

“(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), the circuit court has exclusive jurisdiction of proceedings in this state brought by a trustee or beneficiary concerning the administration of a trust.

“(b) A probate court granted statutory equitable jurisdiction has concurrent jurisdiction with the circuit court in any proceeding involving a testamentary or inter vivos trust.”

§19-3B-203, Ala. Code 1975. By its text, §19-3B-203(a) provides that circuit courts have exclusive jurisdiction over cases “brought by a trustee or beneficiary concerning the administration of a trust.” See also Regions Bank v. Reed, 60 So. 3d 868, 880 (Ala. 2010) (noting that subsection (a) provides the general rule and subsection (b) acts as an exception to the general rule vesting “those [probate] courts that have been granted those broader [statutory equitable] powers [with] the same jurisdiction to hear actions brought by trustees or beneficiaries concerning the administration of trusts as do the circuit courts of this State”).

Ms. ** 5-7. Relying upon the principle of statutory interpretation that “[t]he expression of one thing implies the exclusion of others” such that when the principle is applied to §19-3B-203(b) “it is clear that those probate courts that have been granted statutory equitable jurisdiction do not share jurisdiction with the circuit courts in inter vivos or testamentary-trust cases. Thus, where the probate court lacks concurrent jurisdiction, the circuit court must [under § 19-3B-203(a)] have jurisdiction.” Ms. *9. It follows that because the Colbert County Probate Court is not one of the probate courts with statutory equitable jurisdiction, it lacks concurrent jurisdiction with the circuit court to hear this testamentary-trust case. Consequently, the Colbert County Circuit Court must have subject-matter jurisdiction, which means it erred in dismissing the complaint for declaratory judgment. Ms. *10.

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