In probate, title and ownership to assets can become blurred and sometimes completely unknown. Complicated titling schemes or transfers between conservatorships, trusts and other individuals are often the cause of the problem. For this reason, Missouri statutes set forth a procedure for “Discovery of Assets” to determine right, title, responsibility and ownership of property:
Any personal representative, administrator, creditor, beneficiary or other person who claims an interest in property which is claimed to be an asset of an estate or which is claimed should be an asset of an estate may file a verified petition in the probate division of the circuit court in which said estate is pending seeking determination of the title, or right of possession thereto, or both. The petition shall describe the property, if known, shall allege the nature of the interest of the petitioner and that title or possession of the property, or both, are being adversely withheld or claimed. The court may order the joinder, as a party, of any person who may claim an interest in or who may have possession of any such property. Section 473.340, RSMo.
At its core, the Discovery of Assets procedure grants the probate court the authority to determine the “estate’s title, right to possession, or both of specific property.” Estate of Williams v. Williams, 12 S.w.3d 302, 305 (Mo. 2000). Sometimes it is invoked in a “friendly” context where there is a simple dispute as to ownership. In other circumstances, it is triggered when someone is wrongfully withholding assets that belong to an estate. From a procedural perspective, the probate division has original and exclusive jurisdiction over a Discovery of Assets proceeding. The claim cannot be pursued in the general county circuit court, or else it is subject to dismissal, transfer or delay.
It is also important to note that the Discovery of Assets mechanism is limited. It is not intended as a devised to test general fiduciary conduct with a breach of fiduciary cause of action, improper administration of an estate, or general disputes between heirs or legatees. In re Goldenberg’s Estate, 601 S.W.2d 637, 639 (Mo. Ct. App. 1980). Likewise, it does not provide a forum for the probate court to entertain a breach of contract action. Estate of Woodrum, 859 S.W.2d 259, 262 (Mo. Ct. App. 1993).
Contact us with questions pertaining to estate, trusts, probate, conservatorships, wills and discovery of assets.