probate exception, federal jurisdiction, subject matter jurisdiction

Document Type



Despite the complexity and confusion surrounding the probate exception to federal court jurisdiction-or perhaps because of it-it has been given scant attention in the literature. This Article seeks to fill the gap. Part II of this Article sets forth the current application of the probate exception in the lower federal courts. Part III of this Article examines the statutory and constitutional constraints on the federal courts' exercise of subject matter jurisdiction over probate and probate related matters. Part III concludes that the probate exception is a mere gloss on the statutory grants of subject matter jurisdiction to the federal courts and that the extent of this limitation is not nearly as great as judicial decisions and commentators have suggested. Part IV examines the constraints placed onthe federal courts' exercise of jurisdiction over probate and probate-related matters by the doctrine of custodia legis, and concludes that the doctrine prevents federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over certain probate-related matters not otherwise excluded from their jurisdiction by the conventional understanding of the statutory grants of subject matter jurisdiction to the federal courts. Part V examines the role of prudential abstention with respect to probate-related matters falling outside the formal scope of the probate exception, and concludes that although courts can properly invoke abstention with regard to certain probate-related claims not otherwise excluded by the limits of the statutory grants of subject matter jurisdiction or by the doctrine of custodia legis, some lower courts are improperly abstaining on grounds not justified under any recognized doctrine of abstention. Part VI demonstrates that what has been describedby the lower federal courts as the "probate exception" to federal court subject matter jurisdiction cannot be reduced to the simplistic formulae adopted by various federal appeals courts. Instead, the probate exception is really an amalgam of five distinct rules that must be applied in tandem to determine whether a given suit falls within the probate exception: (1) the Erie doctrine; (2) the statutory and constitutional limitations on federal court subject matter jurisdiction; (3) the doctrine of custodia legis; (4) the requirement of a justiciable case or controversy; and (5) prudential abstention. This Article concludes that courts should construe the probate exception narrowly to prevent prejudice against out of state claimants and to ensure that claimants' federal statutory rights may be enforced. In addition, this Article recommends that Congress consider enacting astatutory override of the probate exception.



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