Probate court practice can be quirky, fraught with procedural peculiarities and appellate traps for those who do not regularly practice there. Appeals from a Georgia county probate court to that county’s superior court – an appellate process that does not apply to every probate court in Georgia but only to those in certain counties – is one arena in which these quirks frequently arise. Often, the issues relate to jurisdiction between the two courts. In McNair v. McNair, the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed a superior court’s authority to impose sanctions for conduct that occurred in probate court proceedings in the same case but prior to the appeal to superior court.
The short answer? It can’t.
Estate disputes are among the most hotly contested disputes for myriad reasons, not the least of which is they often involve family. So, it’s not unusual to see the parties either ask for sanctions against the other parties or engage in conduct that justifies an award of sanctions. But, as the Georgia Court of Appeals explained, where the basis for sanctions is an allegation that one party’s claims were interposed for delay and harassment and lacked substantial justification, a court can impose sanctions only if that conduct occurred before it and not if it occurred before a different court albeit in the same dispute.
In the situation in McNair, a caveat was filed in probate court and was successful. There was an appeal of that order to superior court, where the issues were tried before a jury and the result was a jury verdict to probate the contested will. The superior court entered an award of sanctions against the caveator that was based, at least in part, on conduct that occurred in the probate court. This was improper – the superior court could not impose sanctions for conduct that occurred before it obtained jurisdiction of the dispute. While the superior court also identified conduct in the superior court portion of the action to support the sanctions award, the appellate court determined that this conduct did not rise to the level of sanctionable conduct.