In the comedy classic “Who’s On First,” Bud Abbott tries to explain a lineup for a baseball game that appears perfectly simple and straightforward to him, but which leaves Lou Costello confused and exasperated. There are times when selecting the right court can have the same effect on parties to lawsuits.
There are three trial courts in Michigan: district courts, which handle traffic tickets, minor criminal cases, landlord-tenant cases and civil disputes involving $25,000 or less; circuit courts which hear and determine all civil claims and remedies; and probate courts, which are courts of limited jurisdiction that generally hear cases involving trusts, estates, conservatorships and guardianships. Certain legal issues are cut and dry. For instance, if you are disputing a traffic ticket then you belong in district court. If you have a civil dispute involving more than $25,000, you belong in circuit court. For issues related to a guardianship or conservatorship of a minor or incapacitated adult, then you go to probate court. But what happens when some of these issues overlap? Which court hears your case?
According to EPIC, probate courts have “exclusive legal and equitable jurisdiction of … a proceeding that concerns a guardianship, conservatorship, or protective proceeding.” The word “concerns” can be interpreted broadly. For example, what if you are a landlord with a tenant behind in her rent and the tenant is the guardian for her mentally incapacitated son with whom she lives? Would a legal action evicting a guardian and her ward “concern” a guardianship? What about a lender seeking to repossess a handicap accessible van owned by a conservatorship for late payments? Would that “concern” a conservatorship? In both cases, it arguably would.
So what does this mean for the landlord or the creditor? Unlike the district or circuit courts, the probate court is a forum that will likely balance the rights of that landlord or creditor against the needs of the protected individual. With the aging of the baby boomer population and the likely corresponding increase in probate court petitions, the expanding scope of the probate court’s jurisdiction will become an issue. And until further case law is developed outlining which types of cases are heard in which courts, this will likely make lawyers and judges alike scratch their heads asking “Who’s On First?”
So, when selecting the court in which you will file your lawsuit, ask yourself the following question: is my lawsuit related to, connected with, of interest or importance to, or otherwise affect a guardianship, conservatorship or a trust? Does your case implicate the settlement of a decedent’s estate? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then making sure you are in the right court today may save you thousands of dollars and substantial time down the road.
For further information regarding these matters, please contact Mr. Zawideh at 248.619.2599 or via email.