The passing of a loved one can be one of life’s most traumatic events. Surviving friends and family routinely wrestle with grief, anger, sadness, depression, and a whole host of other emotions. The last thing many families want to do is think about distributing the deceased assets or winding up his or her affairs. However, these are important functions that must be undertaken soon after the passing of a loved one.
The probate process – that is, the court-supervised process of distributing a deceased’s assets and settling claims against his or her estate – can be unfamiliar and intimidating for many individuals. Retaining an experienced probate law attorney can help reduce the confusion, help you complete many of the required tasks, and alleviate the stress and pressure associated with administering a deceased loved one’s estate.
Snapshot of the Probate Process
When an individual dies, all of that person’s probate assets come under the jurisdiction and power of the court. But not all assets are probate assets. These include:
- Assets with a designated beneficiary (life insurance policy, retirement account, etc.)
- Assets held by a living trust; or
- Property that is held in joint tenancy by more than one person
If a person dies but has left a will, a person having possession of that will must file it (probate the will) within 10 days after the decedent’s death. This obligation falls on any one having possession of the decedent’s will, even if he or she is not an heir, beneficiary, or administrator.
The probate process begins when the individual named in the will (or an interested party of the decedent if no will was left) approaches the probate court and asks to be appointed as a representative and administrator of the decedent’s estate. Heirs and beneficiaries of the decedent – those who stand to inherit some portion of the decedent’s estate – have an opportunity to object to the appointment of the individual.
The court will issue Letters of Administration to the individual or interested party giving that person authority to settle the decedent’s estate according to the terms of the will or Florida law (if no will is left). If a will was left, it must be submitted to the court and proved to be valid. There are some objections heirs and beneficiaries can bring against the will to challenge its validity and enforceability.
Once Letters of Administration have been received and the will (if any) has been accepted by the court, the personal representative will proceed to “administer” the decedent’s estate. This can include:
- Settling outstanding debts and obligations against the estate;
- Identifying, valuing, and distributing assets to the proper beneficiary or heir;
- Collecting receipts and documentation of all work done in administering the estate.
At the conclusion of the process, the administrator will submit a final report to the court detailing how the estate’s liabilities and assets were handled. Once this has been accepted by the Court, then the estate is closed and the administrator is released from his or her obligations to the court.
Other Options for Settling an Estate
Florida law also provides for alternatives to the formal probate process in certain cases. If the decedent owned very little assets at the time of his or her death, or if it has been several years since the decedent died, an interested party may file a petition in the appropriate court and request that one of their more expedited options be permitted. The court has the ultimate authority to authorize or deny administration under these expedited programs.
Even though they are not as burdensome as the formal probate administration process, there are still documents and reports that need to be filed with the court. An experienced Florida probate attorney is best suited to tell you whether your particular case is eligible for one of these programs and what requirements you must comply with during the process.
Will Contests and Other Disputes
Some estate administrations are straightforward and involve few surprises. But sometimes the death of a loved one can trigger family feuds over the administration of the deceased’s estate. The will may be challenged as invalid or the proper distribution of assets may be unclear. In these cases, knowledgeable probate attorneys can help the family sort out any confusion and advise the beneficiaries and heirs of their rights given the circumstances. Where families are at odds with one another, two or more probate attorneys may be necessary to represent the various viewpoints.
Help for Surviving Family Members in Florida
The attorneys of Spink, Shrouder, and Karns, P.A. have been helping families in the Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade County areas administer the estates of their loved ones for over 40 years. Whether you are simply overwhelmed or confused by the process or in need of aggressive representation during a will contest or other dispute, you can count on our attorneys to provide you with prompt, experienced, and dedicated legal counsel and advocacy. Contact us today at (954) 392-9994 to discuss your case in a free consultation.