The Lawletter Vol 39 No 6
It is well known that the jurisdiction conferred to the federal courts by the Judiciary Act of 1798 did not include authority over probate, as administration of decedent estates was reserved for the several states. Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490 (1946). This jurisdictional exclusion of federal courts from probate matters has been deemed the "probate exception." While traditionally the probate exception was interpreted broadly, thereby deterring federal courts from assuming jurisdiction over matters even tangentially related to probate of estates, the scope of the probate exception has narrowed in recent years such that federal courts now will entertain suits involving probate estates under certain circumstances.
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically limited the scope of the probate exception, departing from prior jurisprudence and defining more precisely when federal courts may validly assume jurisdiction over disputes involving probate estates. The federal courts are not permitted to adjudicate issues involving (a) the administration of decedent estates, or (b) the disposition of property actually and presently in the in rem custody of the probate court, but issues outside these bounds are fair game for federal jurisdiction:
[T]he probate 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 disposing 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, 547 U.S. 293, 296 (2006) (emphasis added). Courts after Marshall have acknowledged the now-narrowed scope of the probate exception:
It is clear after Marshall that unless a federal court is endeavoring to (1) probate or annul a will, (2) administer a decedent's estate, or (3) assume in rem jurisdiction over property that is in the custody of the probate court, the probate exception does not apply. Insofar as [prior case law] interpreted the probate exception as a jurisdictional bar to claims "interfering" with the probate, but not seeking to probate a will, administer an estate, or assume in rem jurisdiction over property in the custody of the probate court, that interpretation was overbroad and has been superseded by Marshall.
Three Keys Ltd. v. SR Util. Holding Co., 540 F.3d 220, 227 (3d Cir. 2008).Thus, federal courts may now assume jurisdiction over matters relating to probate estates so long as the matter being litigated does not implicate the above-listed subjects. For example, plaintiffs post-Marshall may now assert claims under federal law (after meeting the jurisdictional requirement of having either diversity of parties or the presence of a federal question) for intentional/tortious interference with inheritance so long as the plaintiff seeks in personam damages from the tortfeasor(s), and not the distribution of property in the actual control of the probate court.