On Monday, April 1, 2024, the Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee issued Opinion No. 2024-03 regarding an inquiry into the proper way for a judge to determine if any beneficiaries object to payment of a reasonable fee for the judge’s services as a personal representative and trustee.

The inquiring judge had been named personal representative and successor trustee in the judge’s stepfather’s will to oversee the estate and trust. As allowed by Canon 5E(1) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, judges are permitted to serve in these fiduciary roles for family members as long as it does not interfere with their judicial duties. In this case, the estate is being handled in a different judicial circuit than where the judge presides and is not likely to result in litigation before the judge’s court.

Florida law under statutes 733.617 and 736.0708 provides personal representatives and trustees the right to receive reasonable payment for their services in these roles. Previously, in Opinion No. 1990-11, the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee concluded it was proper for a judge to receive reasonable compensation for work as a personal representative or trustee.

The new inquiry focused on determining an acceptable way for the judge to identify if any beneficiaries have objections to paying the standard fee. Sending individual letters to each beneficiary outlining the fee and providing reasonable time for any written objections was proposed by the inquiring judge.

The Committee agreed this was a suitable approach. Mailing letters directly to beneficiaries allows each person the opportunity to privately raise any dissenting views on compensating the judge. As long as Florida law defining reasonable fees is followed and any payment is accurately reported on tax forms, the Code of Judicial Conduct poses no barrier to a judge receiving payment even if an objection is made.

So in summary, Opinion No. 2024-03 upholds that judicial ethics rules do not prevent a judge from serving and obtaining compensation in fiduciary roles for family estates, so long as it does not interfere with their court duties. Sending notice letters to beneficiaries was found to be an appropriate method for a judge to fulfill their due diligence in allowing objections to standard fees for work on a family trust or estate. The committee’s guidance provides transparency while still protecting the rights of beneficiaries and the obligations of judges.

 

 

Source: Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee