final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion
under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.
appeal from the Department of Financial Services. Robert C.
Kneip, Chief of Staff.
M. Frazier, of Parker Hudson Ranier & Dobbs, Tallahassee,
Lynn Jobe and Josephine A. Schultz, Assistant General
Counsels, Tallahassee, for Appellees.
Plus, LLC (Choice Plus), appeals a final order from the
Department of Financial Services (the Department) denying its
claim to recover funds from the estate of Mrs. Inez Eleanor
Rigley that were being held by the Department. Choice Plus
argues the Department improperly ignored a valid order from
the Pinellas County Probate Court and made its own de
novo determination regarding entitlement to the estate
funds. We agree with Choice Plus that the Department
overstepped its authority and reverse the final order.
2005, Mrs. Rigley died in St. Petersburg, Florida. In 2007,
the Pinellas County Probate Court determined that Mrs. Rigley
died intestate, having no known beneficiaries. The probate
court ordered "[t]hat under [section 732.107, Florida
Statutes (2007)] the assets of the estate shall escheat to
the State of Florida." Per section 732.107(2), Mrs.
Rigley's real property was sold as provided in the
Florida Probate Rules, and the proceeds were paid to the
Chief Financial Officer for deposit into the State School
Fund. The Department documented receipt of $98, 185.79 in
cash proceeds from Mrs. Rigley's estate and marked it as
an "escheated estate."
At any time within 10 years after the payment to the Chief
Financial Officer, a person claiming to be entitled to the
proceeds may reopen the administration to assert entitlement
to the proceeds. If no claim is timely asserted, the
state's rights to the proceeds shall become absolute.
2013, before the ten-year deadline expired, Choice Plus took
such action. Choice Plus is a private investigative agency
registered with the Department as a claimant's
representative. Choice Plus first petitioned the probate
court to determine that ten individuals (hereinafter the
ten claimants), all of whom resided in Sweden, were Mrs.
Rigley's beneficiaries. Attached to the petition to
determine beneficiaries was a family genealogical chart as
well as a researcher's report that included thirty-three
endnotes referencing various records like death and birth
records. Choice Plus also petitioned the probate
court to reopen the estate for administration and to declare
the ten claimants were entitled to the funds deposited with
the State. The Department was not a party to the probate
proceedings; however, Choice Plus did notice the Attorney
General's Office as required by section 733.816(3),
Florida Statutes, which did not file any objections.
2013 orders, the probate court reopened the estate;
determined that the ten claimants were indeed beneficiaries
of Mrs. Rigley's estate; delineated the share of her
estate each claimant was owed; and ordered that "after
providing for payment of costs and fees, the State of Florida
is hereby authorized and directed to pay the funds it holds
on behalf of the Estate of [Mrs. Rigley]" to the ten
claimants in the proportions set out in the court's
order. As the claimants' representative, Choice Plus
stood to receive $21, 500.53 in fees when the estate funds
Plus then filed with the Department a claim on behalf of each
of the ten claimants, seeking payment of each claimant's
portion of Mrs. Rigley's estate funds. The claim was
submitted on the Department's required form and attached
the required copies of the government-issued, photographic
identification of the ten claimants as well as certified
copies of the probate court order demonstrating the ten
claimants' entitlement to the estate funds. Choice Plus
later submitted Mrs. Rigley's death certificate. Choice
Plus also filed limited powers of attorney for it to act on
behalf of each claimant.
2014, the Department issued a Notice of Intent to deny the
claim (without prejudice) as incomplete because it did not
include the appropriate documents in Florida Administrative
Code Rule 69I-20.0022(3)(b) (2014) to connect the ten claimants
to Mrs. Rigley. In essence, the Department took the position
that the genealogic charts and researcher's report that
had been relied upon by the probate court were too ambiguous
to demonstrate the ten claimants were entitled to
disbursement of Mrs. Rigley's estate funds. The
Department concluded as custodian of the estate funds under
The Florida Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act, chapter
717, Florida Statutes, it had authority to determine the
merits of each claim for funds, and the claim as submitted
failed to meet the burden of establishing entitlement to Mrs.
Rigley's estate funds by a preponderance of the evidence.
the next two years, the parties disputed the Department's
ability to deny the claim under chapter 717. The issues
condensed into a purely legal question that was ultimately
decided in the Department's 2015 final order on appeal.
In its final order, the Department concluded that it had been
vested with the sole jurisdiction to administer chapter 717
and to determine the merits of each claim for funds held in
the State Treasury. The Department rejected Choice Plus's
contention that it was under a ministerial duty to disburse
the estate funds upon receipt of the probate court's
order. Instead the Department determined that, despite the
probate court's previous determination of entitlement,
Choice Plus had failed to meet its burden of demonstrating
entitlement to the Department by submitting the