Fla. Appellate Court: Distant Relatives Cannot Inherit

Elder Law Answers case summary.The Florida Court of Appeals of the Fourth District holds that descendants of the decedent’s great-grandparents are not heirs-at-law under Florida's intestate succession statute. In State v. Estate of Bruening (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. No. 4D2022-2421, Sept 20, 2023).

Kyle Bruening, a wealthy man, died intestate. He never married, had no children or aunts or uncles, and his parents and grandparents predeceased him. During probate, the trial court allowed descendants of his great-grandparents, Katherine Mills, Andy Barter, Jr., and Leah Luce, to inherit, finding them heirs under Florida’s intestacy statute, section 732.103.

Florida appealed because the estate would pass to the state if there were no statutory heirs. The appellate court reviews whether the great-grandparents’ descendants are heirs-at-law entitled to receive the assets.

Under the statute, heirs-at-law can include the surviving spouse, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and descendants of great-grandparents if they were Holocaust victims. The plain language of the statute shows that individuals with great-grandparents in common are not in a class of persons recognized as intestate heirs, and no category encompasses the relationship of Ms. Mills, Mr. Barter, and Ms. Luce to the decedent.

The statute’s limitation of the relatives who can inherit reflects the “laughing heir” rule. The rule provides that distant relatives cannot inherit because they would not be sad about the death, only happy about the windfall.

When the statute references the estate going to surviving kindred, it is in the context of only paternal or maternal grandparents, aunts, or uncles surviving. It does not mean any surviving relative could take the estate. The statute does not define collateral heirs as any relatives. Although it did not adopt the Probate Court, which clearly limits who can inherit, the legislature wrote the statute to convey that distant relatives cannot inherit.

Since Florida’s intestate succession statute does not include them, distant relatives who are descendants of the decedent’s great-grandparents cannot take the estate.

Read the full opinion.