Whether you’ve been named as the executor of a will are simply waiting to receive an inheritance after a loved one dies, the Florida probate process can sometimes seem like a maze that’s impossible to navigate. In many instances, executors have little or no familiarity with the law, and many of them lack any sort of formal financial training as well. That can make it difficult for them to fulfill their duties in an orderly manner. For heirs, the process can be just as frustrating – especially when they’re never truly sure about the progress that’s being made. It can be helpful to have a little more insight about that process to make the entire process easier to navigate.
First, it’s important to understand what probate is and why it exists. The probate process provides an orderly way for executors to settle a decedent’s affairs. When we die, we usually have outstanding debts that need to be settled, tax obligations that must be met, and property that needs to be delivered to our loved ones. The probate process is designed to make that estate settlement easier to manage, avoid fraudulent claims from depriving heirs of their inheritance, and alleviate the societal conflicts that can occur when a deceased person’s assets are essentially “up for grabs.” The current process is the culmination of centuries of inheritance law evolution.
Probate allows the court an opportunity to prove the Last Will and Testament, verifying that the document represents that decedent’s estate settlement wishes. The probate process is also used to provide legal authority to the deceased individual’s named executor, so that said executor can represent the estate during the various stages of the proceedings. During probate, the process is used to settle the disposition of all assets that are not covered by other ownership transfer methods.
Avoiding Formal Probate
There are some instances in which a time-consuming process can be avoided for things like obtaining reimbursement for the deceased’s final medical bills or funeral costs. For example, there is something known as Disposition without Administration – a process used in cases where the deceased’s estate is very small. By law, this process is limited to cases where the decedent had no actual real estate, and where there are no creditor claims on the assets or those claims are less than the total value of those assets. When those conditions are met, the person who made payment for the funeral or final medical costs can file a Disposition of Personal Property without Administration to obtain repayment without undergoing probate.
There is also a summary administration shortcut for estates older than two years or ones that have total values below $75,000. This process can be used by the executor or any heir in line to receive property, and requires the filing of a Petition for Summary Administration. If the estate qualifies, the judge can issue an order releasing assets to their proper heirs.
The Formal Probate Process
For estates with any sort of real assets above those limits, however, formal probate cannot be avoided. The formal probate process begins when the executor presents the will, certificate of death, and a motion to be recognized as the estate executor to the probate judge. The court will prove the will, and issue Letters of Administration that provide the estate personal representative with the authority needed to serve in that capacity. Once that happens, the executor has a whole host of duties that must be performed:
- First, the executor needs to gather the decedent’s important documents and get everything organized. These papers can often be helpful in locating both assets and creditors.
- The deceased’s property needs to be identified so that the executor can take custody of everything and secure it for the benefit of any creditors and heirs.
- Both creditors and heirs need to be notified that probate is underway. For creditors, this means getting in contact with known vendors like utilities, mortgage companies, etc. It also means making reasonable efforts to notify unknown creditors – usually through the publication of a notice in the deceased’s home newspaper. Beneficiaries should be notified so that they know how to get in touch with the executor if they have any questions about the process or its progress.
- Assets should be appraised. This can be done by hiring a professional appraiser to determine the true value of all assets.
- The executor should open a checking account for the estate. Some assets may need to be liquidated to provide money to pay debts, taxes, and heir if that’s what the will requires.
- All creditor claims should be evaluated for merit, with legitimate claims promptly paid using estate assets.
- The deceased’s final tax returns should be prepared, and any taxes owed must be paid.
- Once debts and taxes are paid, the executor should prepare a final accounting for the court and beneficiaries, and submit it to both. At the same time, he or she should petition the court to release the remaining assets to the heirs – in accordance with any will provisions – and formally close the estate.
- Once assets are distributed properly, the judge will issue an order bringing probate to a close.
That entire process can take anywhere from six to twelve months – and can, in some circumstances, last even longer. Executors and heirs should be prepared for a lengthy wait in most instances.
Get the Help You Need
Regardless of whether you’re an executor who needs help handling probate, an heir with questions about the process, or an interested party who is considering a challenge to a will, an experienced probate attorney can help. At Kulas & Crawford, Medicaid & Estate Planning Attorneys, our probate team can help you to navigate through even the most complex probate cases. We can help you with every aspect of the process, or simply provide the limited assistance you need for tasks that require skills you might lack. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you with the Florida probate process today, contact us online or call us today at (772) 398-0720.