Probate is a court-supervised process for identifying and gathering the decedent’s assets, paying taxes, claims and expenses and distributing assets to beneficiaries. The Florida Probate Code is found in Chapters 731 through 735 of the Florida Statutes.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, jointly held assets are almost always considered “survivorship” meaning they will pass to the living spouse automatically. Accounts that pay on death such as life insurance do not need to go through probate. Most often they require you to fill out a form and submit a copy of the deceased’s death certificate for payout.
Yes. With Formal Probate Administration, Florida law allows the Personal Representative to deposit the share of the missing heir into the court registry after all the property is sold. Summary Probate Administration does not work in cases of estates that have missing or minor heirs.
Generally, probate assets are those assets in the decedent’s sole name at death or otherwise owned solely by the decedent and which contain no provision for automatic succession of ownership at death. For example:
- a bank account in the sole name of a decedent is a probate asset, but a bank account held in-trust-for (ITF) another, or held jointly with rights of survivorship (JTWROS) with another, is not a probate asset;
- a life insurance policy payable to a specific beneficiary is not a probate asset, but a policy payable to the decedent’s estate is a probate asset;
- real estate titled in the sole name of the decedent is a probate asset (unless it is homestead), but real estate held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or as tenants by the entirety is not a probate asset;
- property owned by husband and wife as tenants by the entirety is not a probate asset on the death of the first spouse to die, but goes automatically to the surviving spouse.
This list is not exclusive but is intended to be illustrative.
Probate is necessary to wind up the affairs the decedent leaves behind. Florida has had probate laws in force since becoming a state in 1845. Florida law provides for all aspects of the probate process, but allows the decedent to make certain decisions by leaving a valid will.
If there is a surviving spouse and no lineal descendants, the surviving spouse takes all.
- Surviving spouse and lineal descendants.
- If there is a surviving spouse and one or more lineal descendants (with the lineal descendants all being the lineal descendants of the surviving spouse as well as the decedent), the surviving spouse receives the first $20,000.00 of the probate estate plus one-half of the rest of the probate estate, and the lineal descendants share the remaining half.
- If there is a surviving spouse and one or more lineal descendants (one or more of which lineal descendants are not also lineal descendants of the surviving spouse), the surviving spouse receives one-half of the probate assets and the lineal descendants share the remaining half.
- No Surviving Spouse, But Lineal Descendants. If there is no surviving spouse, but there are lineal descendants, the lineal descendants share the estate, which is initially broken into shares at the children’s level, with a deceased child’s share going to the descendants of that deceased child.
- No Surviving Spouse, No Lineal Descendants. If the decedent left no surviving spouse or lineal descendants, the probate property goes to the decedent’s surviving parents, and if none, then to the decedent’s brothers and sisters and descendants of any deceased brothers or sisters. The law provides for further disposition if the decedent is survived by none of these.
- Qualification of Above. The foregoing provisions are subject to certain exceptions for homestead property, exempt personal property, and a statutory allowance to the surviving spouse and any lineal descendants or ascendants the decedent supported. Regarding homestead, the surviving spouse receives a life estate in the homestead, with the lineal descendants receiving the homestead property upon the death of the surviving spouse. If there are no lineal descendants, the surviving spouse receives full ownership of the homestead outright.
While there may be others, the following is a list of persons or entities often involved in the probate process:
- Clerk of the Circuit Court.
- Circuit Court (acting through a Circuit Court Judge).
- Personal Representative).
- Attorney for the Personal Representative.
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
- Florida Department of Revenue.
- Surviving Spouse and Children.
- Other Beneficiaries.
Probate papers are filed with the Clerk of the Circuit Court, usually for the county where the decedent lived. A filing fee must be paid to the clerk to commence the probate administration. The clerk assigns a file number and maintains a docket sheet which lists all papers filed with the clerk for that probate administration.
A Circuit Court Judge presides over probate proceedings. The judge appoints the personal representative (this includes the issuance of “letters of administration,” also referred to simply as “letters.” These documents show to the world the authority of the personal representative to act) to hold hearings when necessary, and resolves all questions raised during the administration of the estate by entering written directions called “orders.”
The personal representative is the person, bank or trust company appointed by the court to be in charge of the administration of the estate. The generic term “personal representative” has replaced such terms as “executor, executrix, administrator and administratrix.”
The personal representative is directed by the court to administer the estate pursuant to Florida law. The personal representative is obligated to:
- Identify, gather and safeguard probate assets.
- Publish a “notice of administration” in a local newspaper, giving notice of the administration of the estate and of requirements to file claims and other papers relating to the estate.
- Conduct a diligent search to locate “known or reasonably ascertainable” creditors, and notify them to file their claims.
- Object to improper claims and defend suits brought on such claims.
- Pay valid claims.
- File tax returns.
- Pay taxes.
- Employ necessary professionals to assist.
- Pay administrative expenses.
- Distribute statutory amounts or assets to the surviving spouse or family.
- Distribute assets to beneficiaries.
- Close probate administration.
- The personal representative could be an individual, bank, or trust company, subject to certain restrictions.
- An individual who is either a resident of Florida, or is a spouse, sibling, parent, child, or certain other close relative, can serve as personal representative.
- A trust company incorporated under the laws of Florida, or a bank or savings and loan authorized and qualified to exercise fiduciary powers in Florida, can serve as personal representative.
- If the decedent left a valid will, the designated personal representative nominated in the will has preference to serve.
- If the decedent did not leave a valid will, the surviving spouse has preference, with second preference to the person selected by a majority in interest of the heirs.
In almost all instances the personal representative must be represented by a Florida attorney. The personal representative is required to give written notice of the nonclaimed period to known creditors, too. A Florida attorney may serve both as personal representative and as attorney for the personal representative.
The attorney for the personal representative advises the personal representative on rights and duties under the law, and represents the personal representative in estate proceedings. The attorney for the personal representative is not the attorney for the beneficiaries.
A will provision mandating that a particular attorney or firm be employed as attorney for the personal representative is not binding on the personal representative.
A creditor or other claimant may file a paper called a “statement of claim” against the estate with the Clerk of the Circuit Court. This claim is generally required to be filed within the first three months of publication of a prescribed notice in a countywide newspaper. This three-month period is referred to as the “nonclaimed period.” The personal representative or any other interested person may file an objection to the statement of claim, after which the claimant must file a separate independent lawsuit to pursue the claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that the personal representative use diligent efforts to give actual notice of the probate proceeding to “known or reasonably ascertainable” creditors, to afford them an opportunity to file claims. A valid claimant is not viewed as an adversary of the personal representative or the beneficiaries, but in fairness is viewed as one entitled to whatever is properly due.
For federal tax purposes, death triggers two things. It ends the decedent’s last tax year for purposes of filing a federal income tax return, and it establishes a new tax entity, the “estate.”
The personal representative may be required to file the following returns, depending on income of the decedent, income of the estate and size of the estate:
- Final Form 1040 income tax return.
- One or more Form 1041 income tax returns for the estate.
- Final Form 709 gift tax return.
- Form 706 federal estate tax return.
The personal representative may be required to file other returns. Additionally, the personal representative has the responsibility to deal with issues arising from tax years prior to the decedent’s death (including tax returns that were filed or that should have been filed).
The personal representative has the responsibility to pay amounts due the IRS from the decedent and the estate.
The personal representative sends a copy of the probate inventory and a copy of a “preliminary notice and report” form to the Florida Department of Revenue, which may review information from an estate regarding (1) Florida intangible tax and (2) Florida’s share of the federal estate tax.
Regarding Florida’s intangible tax, the department reviews the inventory and preliminary notice and report to determine whether the estate, or the decedent while alive, failed to file a required intangible tax return or to pay intangible tax.
Regarding federal estate taxes, the department will be the recipient of all or a portion of the “state credit” amount if the estate owes any federal estate tax. Federal estate tax laws allow a certain amount (“state credit”) to be paid to the state instead of the federal government, without increasing the total amount of estate tax. Florida has such a “sponge tax” provision, and Florida adds no additional estate tax.
A nontaxable certificate or a tax receipt from the Florida Department of Revenue is required in order to clear title to Florida real property, and in some instances in order to close the probate administration file.
Florida public policy attempts to protect a surviving spouse and certain surviving children from total disinheritance. Absent a nuptial agreement waiving the right, a surviving spouse has homestead rights, elective share rights, family allowance rights, and exempt property rights. All of these rights, except the elective share rights, may be rights shared with surviving children of the decedent, depending on the circumstances.
Under the Florida Probate Code, the decedent may entirely disinherit other potential beneficiaries.
For estates not required to file a federal estate tax return, the final accounting and papers to close the probate administration are due within 12 months of commencement of probate. This period can be extended, after notice to interested persons.
The federal estate tax return is due nine months after death. If a federal estate tax return is required, the final accounting and papers to close the probate administration are due within 12 months from the date the tax return is due. This date is usually extended by the court after a hearing because, often the IRS’ review and acceptance of the estate tax return are not completed within that period.
Estates that are not required to file a federal estate tax return and that do not involve litigation may often close in five or six months.
In any event, partial distributions to beneficiaries may be made during the period of administration. But, usually, this is not done until expiration of the nonclaimed period. That is to say, not all distributions of probate assets must be delayed until the closing of the estate.
The personal representative, the attorney and other professionals whose services may be required in administering the estate (such as appraisers and accountants) are entitled by law to reasonable compensation.
The fee for the personal representative is usually determined in one of five ways: (1) as set forth in the will; (2) as set forth in a contract between the personal representative and the decedent; (3) as agreed among the personal representative and the persons who bear the impact of the fee; (4) as calculated under Florida law without court hearing, if the amount is not objected to; or (5) as determined by the probate judge, applying Florida law.
The fee for the attorney for the personal representative is usually determined pursuant to FL. Stat. 733.6171.
Florida law provides for three alternate abbreviated procedures other than Formal Administration.
Family Administration is generally available if beneficiaries consist solely of a surviving spouse, lineal descendants (i.e., children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc.) or lineal ascendants (i.e., parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc.), and the value of the gross estate for federal estate tax purposes is less than $75,000.
Summary Administration is generally available if the value of the estate subject to probate in Florida (less property which is exempt from the claims of creditors) is not more than $75,000 or the decedent has been dead for more than two years.
Under Family Administration and Summary Administration, the persons who receive the estate assets remain liable for claims against the decedent for two years after the date of death. This period may be reduced in Summary Administration by publication of notice in a local newspaper. In a Family Administration, the two-year period may be reduced by using Formal Administration until all claims of creditors have been barred.
The third alternative to Formal Administration is “Disposition Without Administration.” This is available if estate assets consist solely of exempt property (as defined by law and the Florida Constitution) and non-exempt personal property, the value of which does not exceed the combined total of up to $3,000 in funeral expenses, plus the amount of all reasonable and necessary medical and hospital expenses incurred in the last 60 days of the last illness.
Your mother may have had your sister either as a named signor on that account or designated as a beneficiary. Either of those options would preclude the account from going through probate and being distributed according to the Last Will.
The Last Will is merely an instruction manual for the courts as to how the Testator (maker of the Last Will) would like to have their assets distributed after passing away. Without a Last Will there would be only the default state statutes for the court’s guidance. Filing the Last Will provides the necessary direction to the courts and the Personal Representative (aka Executor) as to how your mother wants the assets distributed.
Unfortunately, unless you discuss with your family members ahead of time, there is no way to know what accounts such as life insurance are out there. It is very important to make time to discuss these things before you must search a loved one’s papers after they pass away.
The answer to this question depends on whether the funds are made a part of the deceased’s estate or if the funds go directly to beneficiaries. If there are funds in the estate, then creditors may be eligible to be paid from those funds. If, on the other hand, the loved one’s assets had beneficiary designations set with the institutions managing the funds, it is unlikely that the funds would need to be used to the pay creditors.
if a vehicle has an outstanding balance owed and the owner has deceased, it will be up to the Personal Representative to determine the best option to deal with the vehicle. If funds are available, the vehicle may be paid off by the estate. Alternatively, the vehicle can be returned to the bank, where it will be auctioned, and any owed balance will be assessed to the Estate.
Your first move should be to consult with an Elder Law attorney to understand which creditors need to be paid and when, after the death of a loved one. In general, your father’s bills are not yours, so unless you are personally responsible for the debt, you do not need to pay it right away, but it is a good idea to inform the creditor of your father’s passing so that they may make certain arrangements in their system to accommodate for this event.
No. There is no requirement for the person who is nominated as Personal Representative to take on that role and responsibility.