Proceeding or Civil Action
The distinction between a “probate proceeding” versus a “civil action” which happens to be initiated in a probate court, remains unaltered. MCR 5.101.
For the uninitiated, a probate proceeding is initiated by filing a petition. A civil action is initiated by filing a complaint. Whether and when it is proper to file a civil action in probate court depends on a variety of factors, a discussion of which is outside the scope of this article. Suffice to say, such instances occur regularly, and experienced probate litigators often file both types of actions in the same matter. While probate litigators have always needed to be mindful of where they stand in terms of a proceeding or civil action, these rules make that distinction even more critical in the context of conducting discovery.
Technically, there continues to be a difference between the “scope of discovery” available in a probate proceeding vis a vis a civil action. I say “technically” because in practice the distinction is rarely given any significance.
In a probate proceeding, the scope of discovery remains: “limited to matters raised in any petition or objections pending before the court.” Currently found at MCR 5.131(B). As of 1/1/20, to be found at MCR 5.131(B)(3).
The real change comes from the rewrite of MCR 2.302(B)(1) which defines the scope of discovery in civil actions. The shorthand version of that rule has long been: anything not privileged that is “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” It now says:
… any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claims or defenses and proportional to the needs of the case, taking into account all pertinent factors, including whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit, the complexity of the case, the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, and the parties’ resources and access to relevant information. Information within the scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.
The new rules also provide a process for parties to have a court address whether particular discovery requests are, or are not, justified by the factors laid out above.
This change essentially shifts the burden of proving the necessity or appropriateness of a discovery request from the party (or non-party) receiving it, onto the party issuing it. The practice for many litigators now is to flood the opposing party with extensive requests and let them file a motion for protective order, from which platform they can argue that the requests are overly broad or unduly burdensome.
FOOTNOTE: While one could suggest that these new proportional balance rules are not applicable to discovery in probate proceedings, I believe, as a practical matter, this is not the case. Although the above-cited language comes from the definition of the “scope of discovery” in civil actions, and, as indicated above, the scope of discovery for probate proceedings is separately defined by its own rule, the new probate rules also state that all the discovery rules for civil actions apply to probate proceedings except for the rules regarding required disclosures. MCR 5.131(B)(1). Accordingly, it seems unlikely that a trial judge would entertain the argument that discovery requests in a probate proceedings can continue to operate outside the bounds of proportionate justification that the Supreme Court has seen fit to place on all other forms of discovery.