Seventh Circuit Holds Probate Exception to Federal Jurisdiction Applies in Federal-Question Cases

Per Jones v. Brennan, 465 F.3d 304 (7th Cir. Aug. 14, 2006):

There is another jurisdictional obstacle to consider, however, and that is the "probate exception" to the federal courts' jurisdiction. See, e.g., Storm v. Storm, 328 F.3d 941, 943-44 (7th Cir.2003); Dragan v. Miller, 679 F.2d 712, 713-15 (7th Cir.1982). As recently clarified by the Supreme Court, the exception "reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent's estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction." Marshall v. Marshall, --- U.S. ----, ----, 126 S.Ct. 1735, 1748, 164 L.Ed.2d 480 (2006). The probate exception is usually invoked in diversity cases, and the courts are divided over its applicability to federal-question cases, such as this case. Compare In re Marshall, 392 F.3d 1118, 1131-32 (9th Cir.2004), rev'd on other grounds under the name Marshall v. Marshall, supra, and Tonti v. Petropoulous, 656 F.2d 212, 215-16 (6th Cir.1981), holding it applicable to such cases, with Goerg v. Parungao, 844 F.2d 1562, 1565 (11th Cir.1988), holding it inapplicable. We think it applicable.

. . .

There is no good reason to strain to give a different meaning to the identical language in the diversity and federal-question statutes. The best contemporary reasons for keeping federal courts out of the business of probating wills, resolving will contests, granting divorces and annulments, administering decedents' estates, approving child adoptions, and the like are two, and they are as persuasive when a suit is filed in federal court on the basis of federal law as when it is based on state law. First, the proceedings we have listed, or at least those involving child custody and probate administration, are in rem in character--they are fights over a thing of value that is in the court's control--and another court should not try to elbow its way into the fight. Second, state courts are assumed to have developed a proficiency in these matters, to have procedures tailored to them, and to work closely with and even employ specialized staff not found in federal courts. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, supra, 504 U.S. at 703-04, 112 S.Ct. 2206; Lloyd v. Loeffler, supra, 694 F.2d at 492, 13B Wright, Miller & Cooper, supra, at 461. This case, involving as it does a fight over an estate in the control of the state probate court, and the deployment of the public guardian, illustrates both points. See Ankenbrandt v. Richards, supra, 504 U.S. at 703-04, 112 S.Ct. 2206. And since state courts are authorized to decide issues of federal law unless Congress decrees otherwise, confining a class of federal-law cases to state courts does not deprive litigants of their federal rights.


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