Even where the diversity jurisdiction requirements are met, federal courts may decline to hear certain kinds of cases for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, including probate claims and domestic-relations cases. These judicially created exceptions were developed when the congressional grant of diversity jurisdiction granted jurisdiction over “suits of a civil nature in law or in equity.” Courts at the time did not think that probate or domestic relations matters met this description. Even though the statute now reads “civil action” the exception has continued.
In 1992, in Ankenbrandt v. Richards, the Supreme Court, treating the issue as a matter of statutory interpretation, recognized the domestic-relations exception, but only for cases involving a divorce, alimony payments or the custody of children. 504 U.S. 689 (1992). The Court upheld jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ tort claims arising from the allegation that the father of her children had sexually and physically abused them. The Ankenbrandt Court considered the domestic-relations exception as a matter of judicial economy and expertise for federal courts, who are not as close to handling issues related to divorce, alimony and child custody as state courts.
In 2006, the Supreme Court addressed the probate exception in Marshall v. Marshall. 547 U.S. 293 (2006). The case arose from a bankruptcy proceeding regarding the estate of J. Howard Marshall, who died and left his entire estate to his son and nothing to his significantly-younger widow. The Supreme Court upheld jurisdiction over the widow’s claim that the son had tortiously interfered with her expected bequest, noting that the claim was a “widely recognized tort,” id. at 312, and did not interfere with the state probate proceeding. Thus, Justice Ginsburg explained for the Court, there was no need to extend the probate exception to cover this case. Id. Again, the Court noted state courts’ “special proficiency” with probate issues as a justification for the judicially created exception to diversity jurisdiction. Id. Justice Stevens concurred, arguing for an end to the judicially created exceptions.