PROBATE

A personal representative should always engage a qualified attorney to assist in the administration of the decedent’s probate estate. Many legal issues arise, even in the simplest probate estate administration, and most of these issues will be novel and unfamiliar to non-attorneys.

The attorney for the personal representative advises the personal representative on the rights and duties under the law, and represents the personal representative in probate estate proceedings. The attorney for the personal representative is not the attorney for any of the beneficiaries of the decedent’s probate estate.

A provision in a will mandating that a particular attorney or firm be employed as attorney for the personal representative is not binding. Instead, the personal representative may choose to engage any attorney.

Frequently Asked Questions

Probate is a court-supervised process for identifying and gathering the assets of a deceased person (decedent), paying the decedent’s debts, and distributing the decedent’s assets to his or her beneficiaries. In general, the decedent’s assets are used first to pay the cost of the probate proceeding, then are used to pay the decedent’s outstanding debts, and the remainder is distributed to the decedent’s beneficiaries. The Florida Probate Code is found in Chapters 731 through 735 of the Florida Statutes, and the rules governing Florida probate proceedings are found in the Florida Probate Rules, Part I and Part II (Rules 5.010-5.530).
Probate is necessary to pass ownership of the decedent’s probate assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries. If the decedent left a valid will, unless the will is admitted to probate in the court, it will be ineffective to pass ownership of probate assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries. If the decedent had no will, probate is necessary to pass ownership of the decedent’s probate assets to those persons who are to receive them under Florida law.

Probate is also necessary to wind up the decedent’s financial affairs after his or her death. Administration of the decedent’s estate ensures that the decedent’s creditors are paid if certain procedures are correctly followed.

Probate administration applies only to probate assets. Probate assets are those assets that the decedent owned in his or her sole name at death, or that were owned by the decedent and one or more co-owners and lacked a provision for automatic succession of ownership at death.

  • Example:
    A bank account or investment account in the sole name of a decedent is a probate asset, but a bank account or investment account owned by the decedent and payable on death or transferable on death to another, or held jointly with rights of survivorship with another, is not a probate asset.
  • A life insurance policy, annuity contract or individual retirement account that is payable to a specific beneficiary is not a probate asset, but a life insurance policy, annuity contract or individual retirement account payable to the decedent’s estate is a probate asset.
  • Real estate titled in the sole name of the decedent, or in the name of the decedent and another person as tenants in common, is a probate asset (unless it is homestead property), but real estate titled in the name of the decedent and one or more other persons as joint tenants with rights of survivorship is not a probate asset.

These examples are for illustration only. Not an exhaustive list.

It depends on the facts of each situation; some probate administrations take longer than others. For example, the personal representative may need to sell real estate prior to settling the probate estate, or to resolve a disputed claim filed by a creditor or a lawsuit filed to challenge the validity of the will. Any of these circumstances, if present, would tend to lengthen the process of administration. Even the simplest of probate estates must be open for at least the three-month creditor claim period; it is reasonable to expect that a simple probate estate will take about five or six months to properly handle.

If the estate does not have to file a federal estate tax return, the final accounting and other documents necessary to close the probate estate are first due within 12 months after the court issues Letters of Administration to the personal representative. This period can be extended if necessary.

If the estate is required to file a federal estate tax return, the return is initially due nine months after the date of the decedent’s death; however, the time for filing the return can be extended for another six months. If a federal estate tax return is required, the final accounting and other documents to close the probate administration are due within 12 months from the date the estate tax return, as extended, is due. This date can also be extended if necessary.

One of the primary purposes of probate is to ensure that the decedent’s debts are paid in an orderly fashion. The personal representative must use diligent efforts to give actual notice of the probate proceeding to “known or reasonably ascertainable” creditors. This gives the creditors an opportunity to file claims in the decedent’s probate estate, if any. Creditors who receive notice of the probate administration generally have three months to file a claim with the clerk of the circuit court. The personal representative, or any other interested persons, may file an objection to the statement of claim. If an objection is filed, the creditor must file a separate independent lawsuit to pursue the claim. A claimant who files a claim in the probate proceeding must be treated fairly as a person interested in the probate estate until the claim has been paid, or until the claim is determined to be invalid.

The legitimate debts of the decedent, specifically including proper claims, taxes, and expenses of the administration of the decedent’s probate estate, must be paid before making distributions to the decedent’s beneficiaries. The court will require the personal representative to file a report to advise of any claims filed in the probate estate, and will not permit the probate estate to be closed unless those claims have been paid or otherwise disposed of.

If the decedent had established what is commonly referred to as a “Revocable Trust,” a “Living Trust” or a “Revocable Living Trust,” in certain circumstances, the trustee may be required to pay expenses of administration of the decedent’s probate estate, enforceable claims of the decedent’s creditors and any federal estate taxes payable from the trust assets.

The trustee of such a trust is always required to file a “Notice of Trust” with the clerk of the court in the county in which the decedent resided at the time of the decedent’s death. The notice of trust gives information concerning the identity of the decedent as the grantor or settlor of the trust, and the current trustee of the trust. The purpose of the notice of trust is to make the decedent’s creditors aware of the existence of the trust and of their rights to enforce their claims against the trust assets.

All of the tasks which must be performed by a personal representative in connection with the administration of a probate estate must also be performed by the trustee of a revocable trust, though the trustee generally will not need to file the same documents with the clerk of the court. Furthermore, if a probate proceeding is not commenced, the assets making up the decedent’s revocable trust are subject to a two-year creditor’s claim period, rather than the three-month non-claim period available to a personal representative.

The assets in the decedent’s revocable trust are a part of his or her gross estate for purposes of determining federal estate tax liability.