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Probate Appeals: By the Numbers

If you like statistics, you might find this interesting.

With the assistance of a law clerk, we cataloged every case appealed from a probate court between June 1, 2016 and May 30, 2019 (three years), to see what we could find out.

We came up with 144 cases. For the purposes of this blog post, I decided to ignore 26 of those cases. I ignored some cases because, although they arose from a probate court decision, the issues involved were not traditional probate questions.  That is, they were only tangentially probate cases.  I also decided to disregard the mental health commitment cases.  Although these are probate matters, the issues they raise on appeal are so distinct from the other types of probate cases, that it just seemed helpful to leave them out.

As to the remaining cases, here’s what we found:

Publication

90% of probate cases are unpublished (just 12 published out of 118 cases in three years)

Nature of Dispute

58.4% of the cases appealed involved issues related the administration of a trust or decedent’s estate. This category includes a variety of issues that come up in the context of administration, including, for example: efforts to remove or surcharge a fiduciary, fee disputes, and litigation involving property rights or values.

20.3% involved the validity of a will, trust or other testamentary document.

12.7% were guardianship or conservatorship matters that related to the need for, or the appointment of, a fiduciary.

The remaining 8.5% dealt with administrative issues in guardianship or conservatorship matters.

Outcome

Most cases are affirmed. Of course, just because a trial court decision was not affirmed doesn’t mean the trial court was reversed. A case that was not affirmed may have been reversed, remanded, vacated, affirmed in part and reversed in part, etc.. But rather than try to slice things too finely, I simply calculated the likelihood of complete affirmation.

72% of all cases are affirmed in full on appeal.

The likelihood of affirmation seems to vary somewhat with the type of matter. Among trust and estate administrative matters, the likelihood of affirmation is slightly higher than average: 76%.  For cases involving the validity of a testamentary document, affirmation occurs only about 62.5% of the time.  For guardianship and conservatorship cases, the Court of Appeals affirmed 68% of the cases decided during the three years reviewed.

Conclusions

Only a small percentage of probate cases are published: 10%.

A significant majority of the time, the trial court’s decision is affirmed in whole: 76%.

This post deals only with cases in the Court of Appeals. While a few of these cases were taken up by the Michigan Supreme Court, I did not track those.

Thanks to our awesome clerk, Asma Ali, for her excellent work in compiling information and assisting me with this project.