If you’ve recently had a loved one pass away and find yourself involved in the settling of his or her estate, then chances are that you’re getting an opportunity to experience the probate process on a first-hand basis. For many people, probate can be an intimidating process that is made more complex by the fact that they’re already enduring the grief that occurs whenever beloved family members die. The good news is that probate is not nearly as complicated as it can sometimes seem. For Florida residents, sometimes all that is needed is a better understanding of the St. Lucie probate court essentials.
What is Probate?
Probate is the process used to gather a decedent’s assets, resolve outstanding debts, and pass on inheritances to heirs. In Florida, the usual order of debt priority involves paying probate costs first, and then settling debts. The remaining assets in the estate are then distributed in accordance with the deceased’s will, or as directed by the state’s intestacy laws in cases where no will exists. Probate comes in two types: the formal administration or summary administration. In addition, some estates may qualify for a non-court process known as Disposition of Personal Property without Administration.”
What Assets are Subject to Probate?
It’s important to recognize which types of assets must go through probate. Those assets include any belongings that are owned in the decedent’s sole name, or otherwise have no alternative legal mechanism for transfer of ownership after death. That includes things like bank accounts that are only in the deceased’s name, life insurance or annuities that lack beneficiary designations, sole-ownership real estate properties, and similar assets.
Why are Wills Important?
The will is an important part of many probate proceedings, as it is the signed expression of the deceased’s last wishes for his estate. It is the vehicle used to name executors to manage the settling of the estate and identify the beneficiaries who receive estate assets. As such, it is vital in cases where decedents have an interest in ensuring that their estates are managed in accordance with their desires. Unfortunately, however, more than half of all adults leave life without a valid will in place.
When there is no will, the court must use the state’s intestacy laws to determine how assets are distributed to beneficiaries. This can lead to undesirable results that see some heirs receive inheritances that the deceased never intended for them to receive, and other beneficiaries denied an inheritance because their right to asset distributions is not specifically recognized by the statutory language. To prevent that, it is important to have some sort of estate plan in place prior to death.
What is My Level of Involvement in the Process?
Your exact level of involvement in any probate proceeding may vary. In Florida, the probate process involves a variety of actors:
- Court officials like the circuit court clerk of the county where the deceased lived prior to death, and the circuit court judge who will preside over the proceedings
- The person named as the executor, or a personal representative chosen by the court when there is no will
- Attorneys hired by the executor, appraisers, tax specialists, and others retained to assist with asset appraisal, taxes, and other estate resolution matters
- Creditors and others levying claims against the estate – including tax agencies
- Anyone wishing to challenge the provisions of a will
- Named beneficiaries – though their role is typically a passive one
How Does Probate Proceed?
The probate process begins when the executor files with the court to receive approval to act as the estate’s personal representative. Once that is obtained, he or she then gathers assets, catalogues and appraises them, notifies creditors and beneficiaries, pays valid creditor claims and taxes, and then distributes assets to the heirs named in the will. On the surface, that sounds like a pretty simple process – and it is, for the most part.
For the executor, however, that simple process involves many different duties. The executor must gather and protect the deceased’s assets and locate the estate’s creditors. He or she is responsible for resisting fraudulent creditor claims, and paying those that are legitimate. Different expert professionals may need to be retained to help administer the probate process. Investments may need to be made, and taxes need to be calculated. And throughout it all, the executor must meet his or her fiduciary duty to the estate and its beneficiaries.
Why You May Need an Attorney
If you’re an executor, you may be told that you don’t need an attorney to help you perform your duties. That may lead you to attempt to handle things on your own, to save money for the estate. That can be a mistake, though, since there are many legal and financial tasks involved in the process that may be beyond your field of knowledge. Moreover, any errors that you make that result in a loss of estate value could leave you facing issues of liability for those losses.
The fact is that you are free to engage an attorney, and the estate pays those costs. Your attorney can help to ensure that you understand the ramifications of any decision you make, and will work to protect your best interests throughout the process. Most importantly, he or she can help to alleviate much of the stress that you might otherwise experience while fulfilling your duties.
At Kulas & Crawford, Medicaid & Estate Planning Attorneys, our probate administration experts can work with you to ensure that your rights and interests are protected, no matter your role in the probate process. Whether you’re an executor tasked with settling an estate, an heir being denied your inheritance, or someone with cause to challenge the provisions of a will, we’re here to help you achieve your goals. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you navigate the St. Lucie probate court process, then contact us online today or call us at (772) 398-0720.